Look, I know I’m not the only blue-eyed blonde Italian girl living in South Philly. I saw another one outside Dante & Luigi’s last week, but I think she was an exotic dancer. My point is, the whole neighborhood might call me La Bionda, and my mother might have forced me to wear a corno on a gold chain to ward off all the mala occhio and envy that would come my way, being beautiful and all, but I am not, like, full of myself or anything. I’m not one of those whiny bitches who break up with a boyfriend just because he’s always late.
So when my boyfriend, Josh, missed the first course of homemade gnocchi at my mother’s party last Saturday night, my first instinct was not to dump him over Twitter. There had to be a perfectly good reason he was late to meet my entire family for the very first time. Like that he was dead, for instance.
I got up from the table abruptly, my black leggings catching the nubs of the white lace tablecloth, threatening to pull over the bowl of red gravy. I said,
“He’s not answering his texts. I’m gonna go find out what’s wrong.”
“Can I have his veal chop?” my brother Michael said.
“You can have my hand upside your fucking head,” I replied.
“No, sweetheart, stay,” my mother said. “While the food is warm.”
“He’s probably just caught in traffic,” my father said. “Or he stopped to pick up wine. Not realizing that none of the Nicholettis drink.”
He winked and clinked glasses with my other brother Mario, who was sitting on his left. Mario, the newly ordained priest, had cheeks that flushed as bright as a slapped bottom when he drank. My father and Mario had already toasted multiple times: to each other’s health, to my mother’s cooking, to their plan to gleefully confuse Josh by calling each other Father.
“No, he’s over an hour late. Something’s wrong.”
“Maybe the food truck was robbed?” Michael said, his mouth so full of gnocchi I could barely understand him.
Josh owned a food truck called Naked Philly that sold organic salads and sandwiches, and was super-popular on college campuses, especially Drexel, where I had just started my senior year. Thanks to a brilliant Instagram mashup of my cleavage and Josh’s cabbage, his truck was popular with the guys. And since many of my sorority sisters only eat kale and chia seeds, he’s also popular with the girls. And maybe, just maybe, the fact that Josh looked like a California model helped. That might have something to do with it. I mean mad kitchen skills and a Botticelli angel for a girlfriend can only get you so far.
“There was another truck robbed October first,” I said. I remembered because it was my father’s birthday, and the traffic had been terrible trying to get across South Street Bridge. Now it was the fifteenth of October—maybe there had been a rash of burglaries and I’d missed it. I grabbed my phone to search the headlines. But I didn’t see anything.
“You talking about the This Little Piggy truck?” Michael said. “I thought somebody just forgot to pay for their pork and the cops chased him.”
“Theft is theft, Michael.”
He shrugged and started eating gnocchi off my plate.
“I’ll call you when I know more,” I said, then walked outside to hail a cab.
I looked up and down Christian Street hoping to see someone I knew who’d give me a lift, but it was quiet. Dinner time. Cocktail time. Nobody walking their dog or sweeping their porch or dead-heading the last of their potted geraniums. I’d probably have to walk all the way over to Broad, or up to South Street, to find a cab. I sighed, and buttoned my coat against the autumn chill. My parents’ brick townhouse wasn’t well insulated, and you could usually hear everything going on inside, outside. Every clink of the glass, every laugh. But they went quiet after I left, like they were afraid something was wrong too. Either that, or they were waiting until I was far away so they could talk smack about Josh.
It wasn’t my fault I fell in love with someone who wasn’t Italian. The fact that he could cook Italian was enough for me, but not my family. They had this crazy idea that I could continue the family bloodline, raise my babies in the Catholic church, blah blah blah. And I’m like, are you kidding me? You want me to mate with a Sicilian and risk muddying my gene for blonde hair? No thank you. I’ll take a blond Jersey surfer who can whip up eggplant parm on a hot plate on the street any day, thank you very much.
As I walked up Ninth through Bella Vista, I passed an awful lot of people pushing strollers, and way too many purple ornamental cabbages pushing out of flower boxes, a certain sign new people were gobbling up the houses in our neighborhood. I didn’t mind the coffeehouses and knitting shops springing up, as long as my old favorites, like Fitzwater Café, weren’t affected. It was similar to my first thought when I saw all the food trucks lined up on campus: It’s all fun and games until somebody’s dad’s diner goes belly up. But Josh’s truck had an angle: vegetarian, and no real competition that I knew of.
I grabbed a cab on South Street and headed over to University City. When I told the driver to take Lombard I caught him rolling his eyes at me in the rear view mirror, and I thought, man, am I gonna Yelp the shit out of this.
The traffic was clogged as we got closer to CHOP, so I told him I’d walk. I threw the cynical asshole two dimes for a tip and started towards the corner where Josh’s truck was supposed to be. As I got closer, I saw flashing lights, and I started to run.
Crime tape wrapped the corner where Josh’s truck always sat. It formed a triangle around the traffic light, a no parking sign, and the two folding stairs behind the truck, where Josh and his co-chef, Bernardo, took their breaks. The tape was stuck around the poles unevenly, the yellow surface cutting the words “crime” and “scene” in half vertically. Two police cars and an ambulance blocked the street.
“Josh!” I called out, as if he’d just pop his head through the truck window like any other day, as if he was waiting inside, brushing his bangs out of his eyes with the back of his hand. A technician wearing gloves started sweeping the surface of the Naked Philly sign with a brush. The sign featured abstract paintings of nude women and this dude spent an awful long time dusting the nipples for fingerprints. Well, he’d probably find some, I thought, judging from what I’d seen frat boys doing to that sign after midnight. A uniformed cop sauntered up to one of the folding chairs and sat down with a sigh.
I limboed under the crime tape. “What’s going on here?”
“You gotta step off, Miss.” the cop said, without getting up. “Crime scene.”
“Yeah, I can read, okay? What happened? Where’s Josh?”
“The owner of this truck!”
“You a relative of Mr. Whitcomb?”
“Oh my God,” I cried. “Is Josh dead? Was he robbed at gunpoint by some crack addict pretending to want an artisanal pretzel?”
The cop blinked at me several times, as if trying to communicate via some kind of eyelash Morse code. I was familiar with this; I had been communicating this way to my hot professors for years. Then he stood up with a groan, leaned in to his walkie and said, “Simon? Need you out here.” Then he turned back to me. “He’s not dead, just handcuffed.”
“Handcuffed? Well uncuff him! He’s not saying anything anyway, not until—”
“I assume from your mode of dress that you are not his lawyer.”
I looked down at my leggings and boots, my fitted down jacket and blue scarf that matched the color of my eyes. I really should have Snapchatted this outfit.
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean? How the fuck do you know what lawyers wear when they go home for dinner, huh?”
“Maybe my wife is a lawyer.”
“Maybe you’re not married and never will be because you’re a sexist asshole.”
I felt a hand on my elbow, and before I knew it, a young black woman in a tan coat was standing by my side, flashing me a badge, and telling me she was Detective Simon, leading the investigation, and how could she help me? In other words, someone recognized that I was not just a curious-but-fashionable passerby or a student with an eating disorder looking for a spinach salad, but a distraught citizen who deserved to be treated with respect, and of course that person was a woman.
“I’m Josh Whitcomb’s girlfriend,” I said.
She nodded. “We’re waiting on his lawyer now.”
“See?” the uniformed cop said.
“Lawyer? What for? What’s happened?”
“There’s been a murder.”
“Murder? Josh wouldn’t murder anyone. Unless it was Bernardo? Because they work in tight quarters and he is annoying as fuck.”
“Uh, no, it wasn’t Bernardo.”
“But Josh isn’t a murderer—”
“We’re conducting an investigation. He’s a suspect. He’s in custody, and we’re waiting for his lawyer to release him. It shouldn’t be much longer. But you can’t be inside the crime tape, okay?”
“Excuse me,” a voice called from the street. A man in a suit came up to the detective and whispered something in her ear. They left together, walking toward one of the squad cars. I guess he was dressed like a lawyer.
“I’ll tell Josh you’re here,” Detective Simon said over her shoulder, and I called out my thanks.
“So who was killed?” I asked the cop.
“Why should I tell you after you insulted me?”
“Are you asking me to bribe you? Trying to get a blow job or something outta this?”
“Just making a point. You catch more flies with honey. You know what I’m saying?”
“No, I do not know what the fuck you are saying, and I don’t want any god damn flies. I want to know what the fuck is going on with my boyfriend because he already missed his gnocchi tonight!”
“Step outside the crime tape, please,” he said. “Or I’ll cuff you too.”
A small clutch of people were standing near the corner, watching the big nothing that was happening, talking like something was. I noticed a chalk body outline behind the truck. I’d never seen a real one before; people didn’t usually leave bodies on the sidewalk of South Philly. That’s what trunks were for.
Most of the people milling around were wearing scrubs—they appeared to be nurses and workers just getting off their shift at CHOP, but there was one guy close to my age taking an awful lot of photos with his phone. I sidled up to him.
“So, you a reporter?”
“Kind of,” he said, continuing to snap photos without making eye contact.
“Kind of? Hello, you either are or you aren’t.”
He smiled at me. “I guess you’re not a journalism major.”
“Jesus,” I said. “First I’m told I don’t dress well enough to be a lawyer, now you think I’m not smart enough to be a journalist?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Like hell you didn’t.”
“I just meant that if you were a journalism major, you’d know that the distinctions between who is a reporter, and who is a blogger, and who is a citizen, are kinda blurry in the world right now.”
“I never thought about it.”
“Most people don’t,” he replied, then offered his hand.
“Ben Travers. Freelance journalist, sometime stringer, always looking for a story.”
“Angela Nicholetti. Drexel nursing student. So you know who died?”
“A young guy. Lacrosse player. At least I hope he was a lacrosse player, since he was carrying a stick. Pretty affected otherwise.”
“Was he strangled?”
The smile drained from his face. “Why do you ask that?”
“Maybe they cleaned the blood up.”
I shrugged. Judging from the butchers at The Italian Market, blood on the sidewalk didn’t clean up that easy. You needed to work at it. “So you don’t know what happened.”
“Actually, I do. Mr. Lacrosse Player was poisoned.”
He nodded ruefully. Well, that explained why they thought Josh was involved. A dead man poisoned right behind their truck. But where—where was Bernardo? And how did Josh get a lawyer so fast—did he already have one?
“Yeah, word to the wise: Don’t order the vegan cheesesteak.”
I shook my head. I had told Josh it was a crazy idea—how could you have a cheesesteak without cheese and without steak? What was left, just some grilled onions on a soft roll from Sarcone’s? But he hadn’t listened. Named it “The Without,” made it with seitan or some shit, and he was so fucking proud of it. But this was nothing but trouble, messing with a tradition. You don’t mess with tradition. Unless your mother and father are trying to marry you off to some greaseball just because he’s Italian. That, you mess with.
I wished him luck with his story, and told him that it wasn’t Josh, because he didn’t have a mean bone in his body—I mean, he became a vegetarian because he couldn’t even deal with bones! He’s a surfer who believes sharks have every right to attack people in the ocean because it’s their home! And he looked at me kind of sad, like he felt sorry for me.
“Let me give you my phone number,” he said. “Just in case.”
“Just in case what?”
“In case we want to share information to our mutual benefit. In case you want Josh’s side of the story told, for instance.”
“Josh is innocent.”
We both looked at the squad car down the street. I thought about pounding my fists on the window, demanding that he be released. But that wasn’t how a journalist, a lawyer, or even a girlfriend should behave. Not if they want to help.
“I’m sure you believe that,” he said.
I wanted to tell him a lot of things: that if he really knew Josh, and saw the way he tenderly piled sprouts on top of beets, like it was a work of art, that he’d know I was right. He wasn’t one of those chefs who were obsessed with knives; he practically petted the food. He coaxed the flavors out of things. How could a guy who wouldn’t serve food with preservatives be accused of serving food with something truly lethal? It made zero sense.
He gave me his business card and turned to leave.
“Hey,” I called after him, “you’re not like a food writer, are you?”
“No,” he said and blinked. “Why?”
“Because you might write a bad review of Josh’s cheesesteak.”
“You mean, because there was poison in it?”
“You don’t know that,” I said. “Maybe the last customer before him poisoned the ketchup. Or maybe the poison was on a napkin the guy had in his pocket. Or in his mouthguard. Maybe he was wearing a mouthguard after lacrosse practice.”
“You’re either a very creative person,” he smiled, “or you’re a career criminal.”
“Thank you,” I said, brandishing his card. I smiled and stood a little taller, the way I always do after a compliment. The light shimmered across The
Abramson Center down the street, and every time the automatic doors opened, I heard the faint tones of a piano being played in the lobby. They do that to calm people with cancer, but it made me feel a little better too. I walked in the opposite direction. At the stoplight I thought, crap, does this mean I have cancer?
I texted Josh and told him I’d wait for him at the Starbucks down the block. I called my parents and told them not to hold dinner; that we’d be lucky to be there for tiramisu. I heard Michael laughing in the background. I heard my father clinking glasses with Mario. I wanted to ask them how the hell they could celebrate when my boyfriend was being questioned for murder. But I didn’t say anything. They already disliked him because he was a Buddhist; what would they think if they found out he was a Buddhist criminal? Oh, it was too much to bear, picturing Josh doing yoga in his cell, making smoothies out of the prison compost. There had to be a simple explanation!
As I walked up the street I called Bernardo, but his fucking phone was disconnected. When I got to the Starbucks, I asked the girl behind the counter for salt, and tossed it over my shoulder.
After all, better safe than sorry.
Kelly Simmons’ novels have been hailed as electrifying, complex and poignant, and aren’t those nice words? Her third novel, One More Day, debuts February 2016. She’s a member of The Liars Club, a group of published novelists dedicated to helping fledgling writers. Read more at kellysimmonsbooks.com