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Philadelphia, 1965: Two street cops — one black, one white — are gunned down in a corner bar. One of the fallen officers, Stan Walczak, leaves behind a 12-year-old boy, Jimmy.
Philadelphia, 1995: Homicide detective Jim Walczak learns that his father’s alleged killer, Terrill Lee Stanton, has been sprung from prison. Jim stalks the ex-con, hoping to finally learn the truth.
Philadelphia, 2015: Jim’s daughter Audrey, a forensic science student, re-opens her grandfather’s murder for a research paper. But as Audrey digs deeper, she comes to realize that Stanton probably didn’t pull the trigger — and her father may have made a horrible mistake…
Who stole the keeshka?
Someone call a cop
—The Matys Brothers
May 7, 1965
Officer Stanisław “Stan” Walczak usually takes his beer by the gallon, but he’s taking it easy this hot spring afternoon. He uses the backs of his thick fingers to wipe away the sweat beading up on his forehead. It’s seventy-two degrees and very humid. His Polish blood can’t stand the humidity.
He looks over at his partner, George W. Wildey. Unlike Stan, Wildey rarely breaks a sweat. He also hardly ever drinks. But after the week they’ve had, George said a cold one was most definitely in order. Stan couldn’t agree more.
They’re in plain clothes, but anybody setting foot in the bar would immediately tag them as cops. No white guy ever hangs out with a black guy in North Philly unless they’re undercover fuzz.
Technically, both are shirking duty.
A dozen blocks away, protestors are surrounding Girard College, and Stan and George are supposed to be there to help keep order. Over 130 years ago the richest man in Philadelphia willed most of his considerable fortune to establish a school for “poor, white, male” orphans on the outskirts of the city. Over the next 100 years, neighborhoods rose up around the campus. The neighborhood changed from German to Irish to Jewish and finally to black, even as the students of Girard College remained poor, white, and male.
After Brown v. Board of Education, however, blacks began to fight for their seats in the classroom. Picketing by the NAACP began seven days ago, and the commissioner dispatched a thousand police to the scene to make sure nothing got out of hand. The last thing the city wants is another riot like that clusterfuck on Columbia Avenue last August.
Stan and George were assigned to the protests from the very first day. Punishment detail, best they can figure. They must have pissed off someone high up. But despite fears of another riot, nothing has really happened. A few jokers trying to scale the twenty-foot wall onto the campus, but that’s been it. Otherwise, just a lot of standing around and waiting. Stan is pretty sure nobody will miss them.
“Still taking Jimmy to the game tonight?” George asks.
“That’s the plan,” Stan replies.
“I don’t know about the Phils,” George says. “It’s the Cards. World Champs. Phillies are gonna have to figure out something new this time around.”
“They’ll do all right.”
“You forget the Cards still have Simmons and Sadecki?”
“And we got Dick Allen and Tony Taylor, who’s the best second baseman in the game,” Stan says, thick finger bouncing on the bar top to emphasize each syllable. “You wanna talk lefties, look at Covington.”
“Sure, but you’re talking about the same team that made twenty-two errors over the last twelve games. That ain’t good.”
“They’ve been on the road. We got ten home games ahead of us.”
Stan has nothing to say to that. He just wants his boy Jimmy to see a good game, recapture some of that feeling from last August when the Phils were unbeatable and the whole city felt like it mattered. Something to look forward to, instead of another summer of dread. He half-drains his beer, reminding himself to take it slow. After all, he has all day to drink.
“Lemme put something on the box,” George says after a while.
Stan nods. “Sure, whatever.”
The taproom is dead quiet. It’s just the two of them, plus two winos in the back, each at his own table. The ancient barkeep wipes down the top of the bar, lifts their beers for a swipe, places them back down, never once making eye contact. The rag smells like industrial bleach.
A thought occurs to Stan. He half-spins on his stool, calls out, “Hey, none of that soul shit.”
“Come on,” George says with a big smile. “You love the soul shit.”
Secretly, Stan thinks some of that soul shit isn’t half bad. But he wouldn’t tell anyone that. Least of all his partner.
George drops the quarter, presses a button. Metal panels, three records on each, a loud metallic flap with every push. There’s a shockingly diverse mix on this machine, George thinks, as if this juke can’t make up its mind if it’s in a black bar or a white bar. George makes his selection with a three-number button punch. After a few sips Stan hears Solomon Burke over the tinny speakers. “Got to Get You Off My Mind.”
Stan shakes his head and smiles. Taps his fingers on the bar top like it’s a piano.
“Don’t worry, Stanny boy,” George says, searching for his final selection, “I’ve got something special for you coming up next.”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
Flap. Flap. Flap.
“So what’s Jimmy listening to these days? He’s the only one with taste in the family.”
Stan’s boy Jimmy wants to be a professional musician when he grows up. He’s twelve and already pretty good with the guitar, even though he walks around the house playing the same riffs over, and over, and over again. Just like all the bands he listens to.
“He’s also listening to some other British group now. The Clinks?”
“Heh heh. The Kinks, man.”
Stan knows that George’s son Junior wants to be a musician, too. But he hasn’t gotten around to settling on an instrument yet. That’s this whole next generation, George said a few weeks back. They all want to be in bands, don’t want to put in the work.
I know, Solomon Burke croons, it’s just a matter of time.
George walks back across the tiled floor, then eases his frame back onto his stool, takes a sip of his beer. “Don’t know how you drink this shit all the time.”
“Only way I can put up with you,” Stan says.
Their snitch is running late. Terrill Lee asked them to meet him here, at this taproom on the corner of Seventeenth and Fairmount.
Stan and George have worked this general neighborhood for the past nine months but have never set foot in this place. They aren’t the kind of partners who drink on the job. And the Twenty-Second keeps them plenty busy; it isn’t Whitetown.
This taproom has no name. It’s a shotgun bar, long and narrow, with a front entrance on Fairmount and a side entrance that most likely used to be marked FOR LADIES. A working-class bar that straddles two neighborhoods, white and black. Maybe that’s why their snitch picked it. Make both Stan and George feel comfortable.
Stan wishes they’d arranged to meet someplace else.
“Say our man tells us something,” George says. “He tells us something, what are we gonna do about it? And who do we tell?”
“This is going to bring a shitstorm down on our heads, you know that.”
“That’s what I’m saying, we cross that line, and—”
George stops speaking as the front door opens. A burst of harsh sunlight blasts the bar, hot air funnels in. Could be their man.
Nope. Not their man.
This man is a tall and doughy guy in dirty jeans, carrying a hard hat. He pulls the door closed behind him. He hesitates in the vestibule, doing his own reconnaissance. He looks at Stan and George—white guy, black guy—then turns around and leaves. More bright sun, more hot air. The door slams shut.
“Guess he doesn’t want to drink with an ugly Polack.”
“Or an ugly murzyn.”
“I am a black Adonis, my friend.”
Stan laughs but not for real. Been hard to really laugh these days.
“So what are we gonna do, George?”
“Well, we gotta do something. We can agree on that much, right? Can’t just pretend none of this shit is happening We gotta take it all the way.”
“Yeah,” Stan says quietly.
They sip their beers. Even George has to admit there’s a certain comfort in an ice-cold beer on a hot August day. His daddy would do a 360 in his grave if he saw his son drinking a cold beer. The bartender, nothing else to do, cleans off some of the bottles of rail liquor.
You’ve found somebody new, and our romance is through.
“Is this supposed to be my surprise?”
“Naw, man, you get three songs for a quarter. Yours is up next. I promise, you’re gonna like it.”
Yesterday, at the end of their shift, they decided they’d had enough of the mindless protest duty. So instead of reporting for duty today they drove a few blocks away to go visit an inmate at Eastern State. They convinced him that talking could help him. They were both lying, but it seemed to work. The inmate talked. Now Stan and George almost wish he hadn’t.
“You want another one?” Stan asks, gesturing to his empty mug.
“No, but you go ahead. I ain’t showing up at home drunk. Carla would have my ass served up with mint jelly.”
“Geez, I’d need a few dozen of these things to get drunk.”
“That ain’t what Rosie tells me.”
Stan is about to warn George about talking to his beautiful wife when the third song comes on—a pair of sharp cowbell strikes, a zippy accordion riff, and then a descending bass line into a polka rave-up. George belly-laughs—he can’t hold it in any longer. A goofy smile breaks out over Stan’s face, against his own will.
Someone stole the keeshka
Someone stole the keeshka
Someone stole the keeshka
From the butcher’s shop
First time Stan played it for George, his partner couldn’t stop laughing. It was simply the most absurd song George had ever heard. Oompa, oompa, kishka kishka. What made it even funnier was when Stan told them the performers were local boys from Chester, the Matys Brothers, and they’d recorded the song at Broad and Columbia, the fringes of the Jungle in the heart of North Philly. Stan said it with such pride, which just made George laugh even harder.
“Hey, barkeep,” George calls out over the song, “get my Polish boy here another Schmidt’s. Who stole the kishka, man. Heh heh.”
Round and firm and fully packed
It was hanging on the rack
Someone stole the keeshka
When I turned my back
The world-weary bartender looks up as if wondering why a black cop would play a silly polka on the jukebox, then shuffles over to the taps.
At that moment sunlight blasts into the bar, along with another gust of hot air wafting off Fairmount Avenue. Both Stan and George turn to look, half-expecting to see the construction worker again. Maybe changed his mind, decided a cold one here was better than a cold one nowhere.
But it’s not the construction worker.
It’s a man with a gun.
May 7, 1995
Homicide Detective Jim Walczak stands on the corner of Seventeenth and Fairmount holding a bunch of flowers and a cold bottle of Schmidt’s. His boy, Cary, fifteen, kicks the sidewalk, looks up at the shuttered bar.
“I thought you said it’d be open, Dad.”
“I said I hoped it would be open.”
Jim crouches down, flowers in hand, props them up against the front door. Or where the front door would have been, had it not been covered and nailed shut with wooden boards. A warm breeze flutters the petals, the wrapping.
Then Jim removes the Schmidt’s from its brown paper bag. Twists off the cap. Drops it into the bag.
“Here’s to you, Pop.”
Takes a sip. It’s not good beer, but it’s what his father drank.
Cary watches him. Jim waits a second, as if thinking it over, then hands the bottle to Cary. But Cary shakes his head, mumbles, “No thanks.” Good kid. When he offered the bottle to his older boy, Staś, he’d pretty much downed half the fucking thing before Jim could pry it out of his fingers.
The bar closed five years ago. Sure, it was a sad little dive on its last legs, holding on to what little trade could be drummed up in this neighborhood. All the action is downtown; nobody wants to hang on the fringes.
“So this is where it happened, Dad?”
Jim nods, lips pursed. “Yeah. This is it.”
He brought Staś here the last couple of years, but this is Cary’s first time. Jim also wanted to bring Audrey, but Claire put her foot down. No way. Not a five-year-old, not in this neighborhood. Jim reminded his wife that he was a cop, carried a big-boy gun and everything. But it was no use. She told him he was lucky she let Cary go.
Shame the bar was still shuttered. Each year, on the anniversary of his father’s murder, Jim liked to go inside, sit on the same barstool in the same place (best he could figure), soak in the warmth and the dark, order a Schmidt’s. If someone was already occupying that barstool, Jim would wait until the patron left, then take his place and drink his beer in silence. He’d have just the one, then leave a very generous tip.
This tradition changed with the loss of Schmidt’s on tap back in ’89, and then the closing of the bar in ’90. Jim hoped someone would open it up again. It wasn’t the same thing, standing outside in the heat, with a bottle of not-so-great beer and a bunch of flowers. No wonder the older boy took a pass this time.
But it is important that they remember. Important they hear the story. They might tear this corner down, but what happened here needs to be remembered.
Jim stands there, staring at the shuttered door as if he can will it to pop open. He wonders what the place looks like inside now, after five years of decay.
“What happened?” Cary asks.
Jim hesitates, but in truth he’s already made up his mind. Cary’s old enough to hear this. Hell, he was younger than Cary when it happened. He’ll be able to handle it.
“Thirty years ago today,” Jim says, “right around this time, your grandpop Stan and his partner, Officer George W. Wildey, were inside this bar when an armed man walked in and tried to rob it.”
“He tried to rob it with two cops inside?”
“It was a Friday. Maybe this robber thought the till would be full.”
Cary nods slowly. It’s clear he doesn’t know what a till is but quickly figures out it’s the same thing as the cash register. Till. Jim watches him commit the word to memory. Once he learns it, the boy never forgets anything.
“Apparently the robber held your grandfather and his partner at gunpoint, then made them take off their uniforms.”
Cary blinks. “Why’d he do that?”
“No one knows for sure, but probably so they wouldn’t run after him right away. Their uniforms were found in the trash about a dozen blocks away, along with their belts and guns. Unfired.”
“But he didn’t just run away.”
“No, he didn’t.”
Cary processes this, but clearly something bothers him about it.
“How did one robber manage to hold up two cops? Didn’t they have their guns on them?”
Jim smiles. His boy knows to ask questions. Look for evidence. Be smart. He drums this into both his boys, and will do the same with Audrey when she’s old enough.
“Well, that’s a great question, Care. One I’ve been asking myself ever since I was your age. And the answer is simple. They knew their killer. It was most likely someone they trusted.”
“Jesus,” Cary says. “Who was it?”
Jim shakes his head. “No one was ever officially charged with the murder.”
“But you know who did it.”
Jim nods. “Yeah, I have a pretty good idea.”
There’s not much to do except hang around here on the corner with a bottle of beer that’s beading sweat and flowers that are already wilting. The May sun is punishing and hot. God help him the day they knock this place down to build condos or some such shit. Jim realizes that yeah, cities need to change and evolve, but this corner should stay the way it is, as a reminder. But nobody remembers. Nobody cares. Jim is lost in a reverie when he feels a tug on his coat sleeve and hears an urgent plea from Cary.
“Hey, man,” a weary voice calls out.
Jim turns around to see some homeless guy wearing a green army jacket, cautiously ambling up Seventeenth Street toward them. He’s scuffed, dirty, and shivering despite the heat.
Jim puts his hand on his son’s shoulder and squeezes it. “It’s okay, Care.”
The mayor has spent the last four years chasing the homeless out of Center City, so they’ve started drifting up here, to the outskirts, in increasing numbers. This guy probably sees Jim in his jacket and tie and thinks he can hit him up for a few bucks. Or maybe whatever’s left of the Schmidt’s in his hand.
“Sorry, can’t help you, buddy.”
Jim turns his attention back to the flowers on the ground. He’s not in the mood to deal with this shit right now. But it looks like his visit is going to be shorter than usual. He squeezes his son’s shoulder again.
“You ready to go?”
“Hey, man,” the guy says again, pleading now. Jim senses Cary tensing up. He’s a fragile kid, easily spooked, just like his mother. Jim’s deciding whether it’s worth flashing his badge or not, tell the guy to go bother someone else, when the guys says,
Jim gives the guy a closer look. Red eyes, trembling lips. High on something. But his features are familiar, even if Jim can’t place them. Somebody he busted? No, somebody he busted wouldn’t call him Jimmy.
“It’s George, man,” the guy says, and then it all clicks so hard Jim’s head spins a little.
The last time Jim saw George Wildey, Jr., it was more than ten years ago, in an interrogation room, back when Jim was working narcotics. Guy says he knows you. Yeah, Jim knew the guy. He did what he could for him, which wasn’t much. He had a few felony arrests for burglary, dope dealing, auto theft. There are two paths you can follow. Even as a kid, Jim knew George Junior here was headed down the wrong one, despite what his father did for a living.
“Hey, George,” Jim says. “I’m sorry, it’s been a while.”
“Yes it has, yes it has. Is that your oldest?” George asks, looking at Cary.
“No, no. This is Cary, my second-born,” Jim says. “Care, this is my friend George. His daddy was—”
“Grandpop’s partner,” Cary says, getting it.
George Junior gestures to the bunch of flowers leaning up against the wall.
“Shoulda thought of that.”
Jim shakes his head. “They’re for both of them. My pop and yours.”
George Junior nods at the beer in Jim’s hand. “Heh heh. That for them, too?”
“Yeah, I guess so. You want a pull?”
“Nah, man, I don’t drink anymore.”
They’re roughly the same age. In the short time their fathers were partners, they socialized twice—and both were very awkward experiences. Jim actually liked Officer Wildey quite a bit. His big bear laugh, his cool taste in soul, jazz, and even rock. Wildey was the guy who pointed out that the Stones pretty much ripped off “The Last Time” from the Staple Singers, and this always came to mind when the song came on the radio. Or when he played it at home, late at night.
His son Junior, though, is another story. Always has this look in his eye that’s part accusation, part confrontation.
“You still working narco?” Junior asks now.
“Nah. Moved over to homicide about ten years back.”
“Hom-i-cide,” George Junior says, drawing out the syllables as if holding the word up to the light to inspect it. “That’s good, real good.”
George Junior stands there shivering in the heat. He seems to want to lean against the wall but doesn’t want to appear weak. Jim wants to ask a lot of questions—where are you living, what are you doing, how’s your mom—but decides he really doesn’t want to hear the answers. Jim just wants to go home to his family and hope the visit next year is a little better. Maybe someone will finally decide to reopen the bar.
Jim pulls out his wallet, flips it open, reaches inside.
“No, man, I don’t need nothing like that.”
Jim shakes his head as he pulls out a white business card, emblazoned with a golden badge and his beeper number. Your basic get-out-of-a-gentle-scrape card. It wouldn’t help you with, say, possession with intent to sell. Or homicide. But it could make a traffic stop a little easier.
“Just in case,” Jim says.
George Junior takes the card, blinks. “In case of what?”
Every time Jim pulls up in front of his house he can’t help but feel disappointed. They bought their row on Unruh Avenue as their starter home in the late seventies when Mayfair was still solid—lots of guys on the force lived in the Northeast—and they had one kid. The loose plan was to stick around for five, six years, then bolt for someplace bigger. Maybe even out in the near burbs.
But those five years passed in a blink, and in the meantime came their second boy (Cary), and before long it was 1990, and they realized they’d been there a dozen years and now with a new baby girl in the house. Instead of moving they doubled down, building a deck off the back of the house to make up for the lack of a yard. According to conventional wisdom in Northeast Philly, once you put on a deck you were there for life. But who cares. In the warm weather, the deck is pretty much where they live.
Jim holds the door open for his widowed mom, Rose, whom they picked up after their visit to the shuttered bar. Rose Walczak still lives in the house she bought with her husband almost fifty years ago, but sooner or later she’s going to have to move. Not necessarily to an old-age home—she’s a bit too young for that—but to a small apartment, maybe, in a better neighborhood. This was a decent slice of Frankford for a long while, but lately it’s joined the rest of the city in becoming one sprawling high-crime area. Jim dreads taking the call someday that someone’s attacked her.
Rose will refuse, of course. This is her world, and all she knows. Part of Jim can’t blame her—and if he’s honest, that same part of him will be gutted to put the house up for sale. The ghost of his father still looms large there.
Audrey comes thundering across the wooden floor. She’s five years old and crazy and strong as a bull.
BAM—a wrecking ball right to Jim’s upper thighs. He scoops her up and blows raspberries into the side of her neck, causing her to wail and squirm around in his arms.
Rose hands Claire her homemade potato salad (which the kids love) and beet salad (which they loathe). She kisses Staś on his forehead, then pats his girlfriend, Bethanne, on her cheek. “Such a pretty girl,” she says. Bethanne blushes.
Cary walks behind Rose, in her wake, and winks at Bethanne, his gaze lingering. He has a public crush on his brother’s girlfriend that sometimes borders on the inappropriate.
“Fuck off, Care,” Staś says.
- "Impressive, intricately constructed . . . Well sequenced to maximize suspense . . .
- On Sale
- Jul 19, 2016
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Mulholland Books