Chapter Four: Vegan (by Tony Knighton)

As he locked his front door, Mickey Marcolina spoke into his cell phone. “Carol, please, I didn’t have a cheesesteak. I told you, I had to meet Joey at Jim’s on South Street. You know how that place smells—the aroma must have clung to my clothes.”

“We can’t be having any secrets between us if this is gonna work, Mickey.”

“None at all. I didn’t have a steak, scout’s honor.”

“I hope not. Why would anyone want to eat a cow? Cows are such sweet animals.”

“I know, Baby. And anyway, people have been turning up dead after eating those sandwiches. I just heard on the radio there was another one last night out by St. Joe’s.” He checked the time on his phone. “Look, Baby, I gotta go. I’ll see you tonight. Bye.”

Mickey walked up South Delhi Street, which was really little more than an alley. The sidewalk was uneven—here and there, spaces in the pavement had been cracked opened to host small trees, while other, newer blocks of concrete revealed spots where older trees, grown too large for the street, had been removed. All of the surrounding homes featured chest-high picture windows. Tucked alongside some of the stone front steps were plantings in washtub-sized plastic containers.

Out on Montrose Street a guy was trying to park his SUV in a space far too small. He backed into a Chrysler’s bumper and its alarm began wailing. Mickey shook his head; people lived in 16-foot wide houses and bought 18-foot long cars and couldn’t understand why things didn’t work out.

His phone rang as he turned north on 10th. It was Angela again. She’d tried earlier this morning. Mickey knew what this would be about, so he declined the call.

He turned right onto Christian Street, heading in the direction of his car. Coming toward him from the far end of the block was a skinny old woman laden with packages.  A little dog on a leash trailed after her, stopping to sniff at every hydrant, street sign, and utility pole. As he said hello and made to pass her, the woman said, “Michael, I’m so glad to see you. I’ve been to the market. Come help me with these bags.”

“Mrs. DeSantis, I can’t. I’m late as it is. I have to meet with a client—”

She pushed the bags into his protesting arms. “You’ll be fine. It isn’t far.” She shuffled along slowly, stopping for the dog to sniff at a signpost. “You know, money isn’t everything.” Brutus gave the post a spritz. Mrs. DeSantis continued, “How is your father?”

He grimaced as he struggled with the bags, but said, “He’s doing a lot better, Mrs. D. Thanks for asking.”

“Good. I’ll say a prayer for him,” she said as Brutus investigated the rear tire of a bicycle that was chained to an iron fence.

“I’m really in a hurry, Mrs. D., so if we could move along a little faster—”

“You young people, always in a hurry. It’s not healthy. My doctor, Doctor Lopresti, do you know him? His office is over on Passyunk. Lovely man. He tells me that I should walk every day for my heart, but it should be a nice, easy walk, not a footrace.” Mickey readjusted the packages. “Those aren’t too heavy for you, I hope? My goodness, you’re a young man. You really need to get more exercise, Michael. Are you eating right? When we get to my house, you come in and have some of my delicious wedding soup. I made it just yesterday, with a nice chicken stock and fresh escarole. Oh, and those little meatballs, too.”

Mickey improved his grasp on the bags. “Carol doesn’t want me to eat that kind of stuff, Mrs. D.”

She shook her head. “That one. She’s half-crazy, if you ask me. Vegetarian, right?”


“Either way, she could use a little meat on her bones. Senza la coula. No rear end.” Brutus marked the right front tire of a Toyota Tercel. “I thought she broke it off with you?”

“We got back together.”

“Hmm.” Brutus barked at a man across the street. Mrs. DeSantis said, “Isn’t it a shame about those children being poisoned? Babies. Their parents must be devastated.”

Mickey winced again, thinking of Angela. “Yeah, it’s too bad.”

“And to die from eating a sandwich—tragic.” She blessed herself. “I see all those people standing in line at Ninth and Federal, waiting for sandwiches. I don’t understand it. Maybe it’s all those neon lights—it looks like Las Vegas over there, all lit up. Me, I’ll wait in line at the market because I have to, but for a sandwich? No.”

“They’re good steaks, Mrs. D.”

“There are good sandwiches right around the corner.”

Another woman walking a Springer Spaniel slowed. Brutus and the other dog had to circle and sniff each other’s butts before moving on. Mrs. DeSantis said to Mickey, “Have you started practicing for the parade yet?”

Mickey shifted the packages. “No, I quit the club last year. I had a lot of fun with the fellows, but I don’t have time any more. Just between you and me, I always hated that music.”

“I love the string bands. You were in Fralinger, right?”

“No. Quaker City.”

Mrs. DeSantis said, “Oh, that’s right. Mr. DeSantis was in Ferko, God rest his soul. He never missed the parade, except for the two years he was away in the army—that was before we were married. My goodness, that was before you were even born.” They turned left at the corner onto Percy Street. Mrs. DeSantis started to rummage for her keys, but stopped and looked up. “I remember when you didn’t have to lock your front door in this neighborhood. Before the coloreds moved in.”

“Mrs. D., you can’t talk that way. It’s just wrong on so many— the people in the market are Asians, for one—”

“That’s what I said: colored.”

Brutus sniffed at Mickey’s shoes.

“You shouldn’t say colored, Mrs. D. It’s not nice.” Brutus hopped up, wrapped his forepaws around Mickey’s right leg and began humping. “Ah, Mrs. D., could you get Brutus to stop?” Mickey tried to extricate himself.

“Oh, he’s all right. Now if I can just find my keys, we’ll go inside and I’ll heat you up a nice bowl of soup.” She fished through her purse until she found them and then opened her front door.

Mickey shook himself free of Brutus’ amorous embrace, went inside and put the shopping bags down on the kitchen counter. Then he turned around and walked past her, saying on his way out, “Thanks, Mrs. D., but I can’t. I’ll see you later.”

* * *

Mickey glanced around the sandwich shop as he entered and saw a man his age with a Fu Manchu moustache seated at a table in the back. They waved to each other, and then Mickey turned, stepped up to the counter, and spoke to the chubby young man wearing a white apron. “How’s it going, Phil? You checkin’ the oil?” He made a fist, holding his arm bent in front of him and pumping it sideways, like he was chipping ice.

“Every chance I get, Mick. What are you gonna have?”

“Uh, gimme a vegetable grinder. And a bottle of water.”

“Oh, you back with Carol?”

Mickey looked out the front window. “Yeah, yeah.”

Phil wiped off the counter. “She still a vegetarian, huh?”

Mickey inspected his fingernails. “Vegan.”

“Yeah, vegan, right. Hey, that’s great. Nice girl.” Phil picked up a hoagie roll and sliced it open lengthwise.

“Yeah, thanks. Let me have some chips with that, too.”

“You got it.”

Mickey glanced around the shop again and said, “You doing okay? Place looks kind of empty.”

Phil looked left and right and then spoke under his breath, “Over the last three days, business has gone from good to shit. Those kids eating the bad steaks.”

“Yeah, but those sandwiches all came from food carts.”

“It doesn’t matter. It’s hurting everybody. All anybody hears is ‘poisoned cheesesteaks,’ you know? They don’t care where they came from.” Phil finished making the sandwich and put it on a paper plate. “It doesn’t pay me to fire up the grill.”

Mickey paid and walked past the empty tables to the back, putting his sandwich and drink down on the table. “Flats.”

Flats stood and put his arms around Mickey. “Yo, cuz, what do you know good? How’s your Dad?” He was taller than Mickey, and wore a fingertip-length black leather jacket with lapels, black jeans, and black pointed-toed boots.

“A lot better, Flats, thanks.” Mickey reached around and patted his cousin on the back with both hands. He looked two tables over. Their lunch finished, two women occupied it, sipping coffee. One looked up. Mickey smiled. She looked away.

Flats shrugged. “They set another date for that thing up in Norristown.” He sat back down.

Mickey took off his suit jacket, put it on the back of his chair, and sat. He rolled up his sleeves, and flipped his tie over his right shoulder. “Give me the paperwork. I’ll file for another continuance. The longer you can put this stuff off, the better.” He brightened, now in his element. “If it ever does go to trial, we’ll hook you up with a guy I know in Montgomery County.” He bit into his sandwich—roasted peppers, eggplant, mushrooms. Surprisingly, it wasn’t bad.

“I’d rather have you.”

Mickey held his hand up as he chewed, then spoke, gesturing as he did. “I’ll be there. It’s just better to have this dude handling things. That’s if it ever does go that far. I don’t know anybody at that courthouse. But my buddy Ralph is in and out of there all the time. He grew up in Black Horse. He knows everybody up there.” He smiled and raised his eyebrows twice.

“All right, I can see that.” Flats took a bite of his hoagie. “Phil makes a great sandwich. What did you get?”

Mickey looked at his and spoke under his breath. “Vegetable grinder.”

“Oh, you back with Carol?”

“Yeah, yeah.” He took a bite, looking at the paper plate.

“Great. She still a vegetarian?”

Mickey spoke while he ate. “Vegan.”

“She’s pretty serious about it, huh?”

Mickey looked around the shop. “Hey, it’s not too bad.”

“No, no, you’re probably better off.”

Mickey said, “How about you? You didn’t get a steak?”

“You kidding me? After those kids? No way. I’m sticking to hoagies, roast pork from John’s—”

“Not Nick’s?”

Flats shook his head. “John’s, all the way. Snyder and Weccacoe, Daddy. That, and my Mom’s cooking. No more cheesesteaks.”

“How is your Mom?”

“She’s good. She told me to tell you that you’re supposed to call Angela.”

Mickey winced. “Yeah, yeah, I know. Her boyfriend got locked up behind that thing.”

“You met him yet?”

“Josh? Yeah, couple times. Seems nice enough.”  He took another bite and then said, “First cousins or not, Angela’s tough. I’m not looking forward to the conversation.”

Flats laughed and rolled his eyes.

* * *

Mickey drove up Kelly Drive, heading to a hearing at the 14th District. There, he would argue that his young client wasn’t really a burglar, that he’d only broken into the home on Coulter Street as a foolish, juvenile prank…even though he was 19 now and had been caught doing the same thing twice before. One way or the other, the kid was going to have to find a new way to amuse himself.

Mickey’s phone rang. He answered, “Hi, Mom, how are you?”

She said, “Anna DeSantis just told me that you got back together with Carol. Is that right?”

“Oh, good grief, Mom, is that what you called me for? Gimme a break.”

“All right, all right. Hold on. Someone wants to talk to you.”

There was a pause and then Angela said, “What, you think you’re gonna duck me forever?”

To himself, Mickey cursed and then said into the phone, “Angela, hi. I haven’t been ducking you. I’ve been really backed up. I was gonna call you tonight, honest. I got a lot going on. I’m busier than a dog with two dicks.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. You need to drop all that other shit, or at least put it on hold. Josh got locked up. They charged him with murder.”

Mickey negotiated a sharp curve in the roadway and said, “Angela, I know about this case. They brought him in to ask him questions. That’s not the same as charging—”

“I don’t give a flying fuck what it’s not the same as—”

Over the phone, Mickey heard his mother yell, “Language!”

Angela said, “Sorry, Aunt Marie.” To Mickey she said, “I don’t care about that. They impounded his truck. They say they gotta check it out, try and find out where the poison came from.”

Mickey said, “Well, that sounds reasonable—”

“Reasonable my ass. They’re tearing it apart.”

“Angela, they need to do an investigation—”

“They can investigate this.” Mickey pictured the gesture. Like everyone in the family, Angela had to speak with her hands, even on the phone. “Josh needs his truck to make a living.” Mickey knew his cousin. Angela would be far less concerned with her boyfriend’s well-being than with how his lack of funds might affect her quality of life. She continued, “You gotta get on it. Right—a—way!”  Mickey could hear her banging on the kitchen counter, accenting her words.

He took a breath and said, “No can do, kid,” then held the phone away from his ear as Angela began shouting. When she paused for air, he broke in and said, “Doesn’t Josh have his own lawyer? Somebody his family got him?”

“Yeah, some dickless wonder. He’s just like the rest of them, a real medigon. Honest, Mickey, he couldn’t find his ass with both hands. His whole family—what a bunch. You gotta do something. Call somebody you know.” She changed her affect and said, “Come on, Mick, you’re the best. Josh needs you. I need you.”

Mickey sighed. “Look, text me his lawyer’s number. I’ll call him later this afternoon and see what’s going on with your boyfriend’s truck.”

“Fuck the lawyer.”

“Angela, language!”

“Right, sorry.” To Mickey: “You gotta handle this, Mick.” She paused and then said, “You gotta sue the city.”

Despite himself, Mickey smiled. Now, we’re getting to it, he thought. Angela saw a payday. He said, “You can’t sue the city for doing an investigation. People got killed.”

“Well, then why can’t we sue that bitch detective?”

“What bitch detective?”

“Oh, you should get a load of this one. Real princess. Thinks her shit don’t stink. Sorry, Aunt Marie!” Mickey winced. Angela continued, “Her name’s Chelsea, for Christ’s sake. Chelsea Simon. She’s a moulignan.”

“Don’t talk like that, Angela. It isn’t nice.” He passed a Honda. “I know that detective. I’ve seen her in court. She’s good.”

“Good? Whose side are you on? Jesus, Mickey, I can’t believe you—”

“I gotta go, Angela. Text me the lawyer’s number.” Mickey ended the call and silenced his ringer.

Passing under the Strawberry Mansion Bridge, he turned on the car radio, catching the announcer in mid-report: “And in local news, there’s been another victim of ‘death by cheesesteak,’ this time on the campus of Drexel University. The victim was discovered this morning, unresponsive on the floor of his dorm room, a half-eaten sandwich on the table. Medics declared the victim dead on location. Authorities say . . .”