The Lip

When Julie left she took half their stuff. Leo found a checklist and a note under her key ring on the counter. Even with Mario’s help it must have taken most of the day. The note said she was leaving the car. He could make the payments or sell it, Julie’s way of being more than fair. There were several points he would have contested, but he had to admit she’d been generous. All Leo’s wives had been generous. It was small consolation.[img_assist|nid=5128|title=The Boy Had Enough by Andrea Ramirez © 2009|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=200|height=143]


            For days afterward Leo’s life was like a dream. He thought about Julie and Mario driving across the country. In his head they were always whooping it up. He wished them dead in the desert, their bodies black and bloated. The image so disturbed him he wished them back to life.

             To take his mind off things Leo went to a Phillies game. He brought his binoculars, a bag of salted peanuts, two joints and his Walkman. The left-hander Rivera was pitching for the Phills, big kid, clueless. Leo sat in one of the empty sections under the scoreboard. The binoculars gave him a bird’s eye view of the strike zone. From the first pitch Leo could tell the kid had it. Every fastball punched a dust-cloud from the catcher’s mitt just before the clap of leather reached him in center field. The big lug got hammered early, but for two and a half hours Leo didn’t think of Julie once.

            The following Sunday he drove to Rittenhouse Square and read the paper. The park was crowded but no one approached him. Julie would be in San Francisco by now, badmouthing him to their west coast friends. Funny, none of them had called. He pictured the other half of their stuff in a North Beach apartment, sun streaming in the windows, Chronicle spread over the sofa. He could see it clearly.

             That night Mario called. Julie had dumped him as soon as they hit the city.

            “Swear to God, Leo, I never laid a hand on her,” he insisted.

             “What are you calling me for?”

             “Hey man, I feel like a shit.”

             “You are a shit.”

             “I’m coming back, Leo. You can kill me if you want to but I can’t take it here.”

             “Come on back. I won’t kill you.”

            “Oh man, I feel like such a shit.”

            Mario showed up on Friday. Despite his rejection he looked much the same, half-drunk, pacing the kitchen berating himself.

            “I mean how could I do that to you?” he jabbed a finger in his own chest. “My best fucking friend! What the fuck is wrong with me?”

             “You’re a shit. You couldn’t help it.”

             “You’re right, Leo. You’ve always said it but now I believe it.”

            “Believe it.”

     He stayed three days then left to mooch off a cousin. Mario was related to half the wops in South Philly. Leo had never known him to have a place of his own. What had he expected to do in California?


            On Easter Sunday Leo walked to his mother’s. As always, he was taken by the photos on the walls, chronologically arranged portraits, Leo and his sister Gail, Gail and her two kids, over the mantel, the one of his dad in a straw hat. Gail divorced and moved to Florida two years ago leaving Leo to deal with the obligations. The tone never varied.

            “I don’t understand my own children,” his mother slipped a Camel from the pack on the table. “You father and I were married forty-five years!”

            “Thirty-five, mom, Dad died ten years ago,” Leo reminded her.

             “You should have grabbed Mrs. Ruggerio’s Eileen. She was always crazy about you.”

             “No moustaches ma. It’s where I draw the line.”

             She tilted her head back to work the bifocals “Oh sure, the neighborhood girls weren’t good enough for you.”

             He let her go on, wondering what it would be like when she died. He’d returned to Philly after her last stroke, determined to see her through to the end. Six years now and she never looked better.

             “Your father was right,” she handed him a beer from her little cooler. “You’re a bungler, Leo. You could have joined the business, but no. You had to go to California. You had to marry every floozie who came down the pike. And to think we almost gave you up for adoption.”

            Leo slid in beside her on the sofa. “You’re right, mom. I should have been a salesman. I should have married Eileen Ruggerio, but,” he held up a finger, “at least I didn’t murder my mother, like Richie Pettis.”

            “Richie was a little bastard, but he was no bungler,” she gave him a poke. “Besides, who was it sent your father to an early grave, aanh?”

             “He had emphysema, for cryin’ out loud!”

            “You know what I mean.” The bifocals gave her a haughty look. Leo didn’t know what she meant but he let it pass. The smoke from her cigarette curled into a perfect circle. He never came without a carton, hoping against hope.    

            The microwave chicken was raw on the inside. Leo could hear the clack of dentures over the talk show radio. Afterwards he did the dishes and put out the trash. Standing in her tiny yard he raised his eyes to the South Philly skies. One star, way over Jersey.

            “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight,” he tried to remember the rest. The light circled slowly and descended to the airport. When he returned his mother was sound asleep in front of the TV. He leaned to kiss her forehead, slipped a twenty from her purse and let himself out.


            There was a postcard from Julie in the morning mail. “I love you but I don’t like you.”


            Benny was waiting for him at the diner. The Sheik, Julie called him, in reference to the doo, jet black and raked back like it was painted on. Not a good look for Benny, nearing sixty and putting on the pounds.

            “Where you been?” he hiked up his eyebrows. “I’m on a schedule here.”

            “What schedule?” Leo checked the clock. “The tit bars don’t open for hours.”

             “Yeah, okay, that’s funny. Sit down, would you? I got a kink,” Benny rubbed his neck.

            “Maybe you should give the girls a break for a while. Everything in moderation, eh Sheik?”

            “You only go around once, kid. Tell me a better way to spend the time?”

             Leo smiled. “Well, it’s good you found your niche.”

             “Tell me you got plasma, Leo.”

             “What I got is ceiling fans. Top of the line and in the box.“

            Benny’s eyebrows shot up higher. Everything was eyebrows with the Sheik.

             “What the fuck am I gonna do with ceiling fans? What about the TVs?”

            Leo tapped Benny’s pudgy little hand. “Next time, Benj. This time it’s ceiling fans.”

             “Jesus, Leo. Tell me it ain’t down to this.”

             “It’s down to this, Benny,” Leo flapped his hands around. “Hey it beats scalping tickets, right?”

            The Sheik sat there staring off. “I don’t know what happened. What the fuck happened?”

             “Prosperity, Benny,” Leo shrugged. “It’s a socio-economic thing.”

            “Jesus, I miss the old days. This, …” he shook his lacquered head.

            “Benny, hey, these are top of the line fans here. You want in?”

             He just kept shaking his head.

             “Tell you what,” Leo drummed his thumbs on the counter. “Give me two grand for the whole load. That’s one hundred units, plus remote.”

            “Units. God help us.”

             “I can deliver them or you can come pick them up. Your call.”

     The Sheik heaved a sigh and reached in his jacket. Leo waited but the hand just stayed there.

            “Look at you,” the old crook laughed. “Hey, this reminds me of the scene in that movie where the guy reaches for his wallet and pulls out his gun.”

            “What movie? What are you talking about, Benny?”

             “The movie where the hoods hijack a truckload of something, not ceiling fans. I forget.”

            “In or out, c’mon Benny.”

             “Coffins, that’s what it was,” Benny leaned in close. “Only some of them were occupied.”

            “Time’s up.” Leo stormed off, slowing slightly to give Benny an opening. When the bastard declined he pushed through the door and crossed the lot to his black SUV. He felt out of focus, not all there, a flash to the 80’s with his head full of Tester’s. Not like Benny to queer a deal. Sheik could move broken glass and at the lowball price he had to know Leo was desperate. What was it with the old guys that they got so goofy? The problem was who else can you go to?

            The other problem was what to do with them now. The ceiling fans. They were in Ludlow’s garage at the moment but his wife was squawking and his neighbor’s were nosey. Not to mention Leo’s cash flow problem.

            He watched Benny through the window, willing him to change his mind. For a second he thought it just might work, but the fucker sat there feeding his face.


            A Julie message on the machine.[img_assist|nid=5129|title=Pez Collection by Dorrie Rifkin © 2009|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=200|height=286]

             “I think you should resolve your conflict with your mother. She won’t be around much longer, you know. ”

            Leo wondered who she could be staying with and drew up a list of likely suspects. The thing that always bothered him was that he could picture Julie with almost anyone. She came late to the cheating game, but it didn’t take her long to get the hang of it. Catholic schoolgirl turning with a vengeance. He played the message a second time. The phone rang while he was looking at it.


             “Yeah Luds. I’m gonna move ‘em, don’t rip a stitch.”

            “That’s what I called about. They’re not here.”


            “The ceiling fans. I came home tonight and they were gone.”

             Leo pictured Ludlow’s garage, the space they took up.

             “I know you’ll think I’m getting over but someone stole them, Leo. I swear to fucking God.”

            “Someone walked off with a truckload of ceiling fans?”

             “Fucking un-believable, right?”

            Lying rat-fuck son of a bitch.

             “You don’t want to do this, Ludlow. Couple of days, they’ll pop up, right?”

            “On my father’s fucking grave, Leo. Hey, I’m out just like you!”

             Leo thought he heard someone else talking, but he couldn’t be sure. He didn’t want to think about what was happening here. Ludlow meant to beat him on the load.

             “Couple of days. Ludsy. I’ll give you a call.”


            The Phillies were in a rebuilding year. Except for one championship season, that shining moment decades past, the Phils had been rebuilding for over a century. Once again pitching was the problem. Pitching was always the Phillies problem, except for the odd year when hitting was also the problem. Many like Leo saw the organization as genetically flawed, those fluke years in the 80’s, just a statistical anomaly. Throw the monkeys out on the diamond often enough, etc…

            Only not these monkeys. Their record was more than a matter of bad judgment. Touted prospects shed their talent as they moved through the system. High school phenoms left their confidence and their fastballs in Spartansburg and Wilkes-Barre. Management, depending on the year and level of hostility, made one of two wrong moves. Either they let this year’s wunderkind languish in the bush leagues, tying up time and money, or they rushed him into the rotation where he was promptly battered beyond recognition. Pick a year, same story.

            That night’s pitcher was a recent pickup from Houston. Front office couldn’t resist these guys, the one season whiz with a flakey reputation, career castoffs cycling down. All too often it ended with the Phillies.

            The first pitch was a strike, triggering visions of a strikeout. The season was young and hope springs eternal. The second pitch was a swinging strike and even the cynics allowed themselves to dream. Pitches three, four and five sailed up, up, and away and the rustle in the stands set the seasonal tone. After a confab with the catcher the castoff bore down, fucking beachball coming at ya. Leo could see the batter’s eyes light up then a white blur slicing down the right field line. The game quickly settled into a rout, brutal even by Phillie standards. The fans turned ugly early, taunting the castoff with death threats, burying him in boos when they yanked him in the second. Stunned by their rage he stumbled off the field, disappearing into a dugout from which he would never again emerge.

            A parade of relievers was promptly pounded.

            By the seventh the crowd sat in grim silence, reflecting on all things Philadelphian. Leo was aware of a disturbing parallel between the team’s fortunes and his own. It was no coincidence that he spent the glory year in California, watching on TV. The implications were clear and Leo vowed never to go home again. If that was the price he was willing to pay it. Julie, of course, had other ideas, his mom had her stroke and the rest was just history repeating itself. Of the teams who excelled at futility, none could touch those Fumblin’ Phils. Losers of more games than any team in any sport.


            They were new and splashy, but they were still row houses. Two where three used to be, bay windows facing out on the drycleaners. Leo parked behind a row of pickups and listened for Lanny’s blather.

            “What the fuck is this? I got fucking monkeys working for me!”

            Rear bedroom, upstairs. The front door was open, the downstairs rooms were bland and tasteless. Leo’s own house had the original woodwork, circa 1917. He’d bought it for a song before he met Julie. The thing about modern, it lacked the detail. He waited for windbag to take a breath but Lanny was on an ass-chewing roll.

             “Look at this! There’s more fucking paint on the carpet than there is on the fucking wall!”

            Leo watched from the doorway. A trio of Mexicans shrugged it all off.

            “Nice ceiling fans,” he called over.

            “Heyyy! Leo my man!” Lanny broke it off and clapped him on the shoulder. “Whaddya think? Federal Terrace, my piece de resistance!”

            “Where’d you get ‘em Lanny?”

            The big man took his arm and led him to the hallway “Yo Leo, you workin’ for L and I, or what?”

             Leo hated this shit. “Tell me now while I’m still in a good mood.”

            Lanny looked more puzzled than worried. “Some guy came around. I didn’t ask questions.”

            “Know something, boss?” Leo pointed with his chin. “Those amigos can’t understand a thing you’re saying.”

            Lanny looked in on the Mexicans and smiled. “Best fucking crew I ever had. They’d paint each other if I gave them the word.”

            “Tell me about this other guy. Do I know him?”

             “I wasn’t around. Maybe Pedro here can-“

             “Cut the crap, Irish.”

            Lanny looked right through him. “I gotta tell you man, the tough stuff doesn’t suit you.”

            He really hated this. Ludlow was making some kind of move and betting Leo would roll over. Ceiling fans, for Christ sake!

            “I got nothin’ to do with this.” Lanny stood his ground. “Hey, I’m just trying to make a living.”

            Leo left a footprint on the front door

            This was serious. Ludlow had always been flakey but they’d been at this for thirty years! Leo called and got the machine. He drove over but no one answered the door. After that he didn’t know what to do. Ludlow tended bar on the Ave. The place was a dive, mostly ironworkers and off-duty cops. Not a place to start something, but what did Leo plan to start, anyway?

            He went to McGrath’s to think it through, but they had the game on and Shank was there and the night got away from him. Next morning he spotted Ludlow’s truck in the diner lot. Leo signaled to turn but changed his mind, nearly clipping a roofing truck.


            Julie again. Leo didn’t even play it.


            “Whaddya mean whaddya do? You go after him!” Mario made a chopping motion. “You make him fucking pay!”

            Leo stared at his hands. “I’ve known Ludlow all my life.”   

            Mario stumbled to a chair, winded. “Everybody’s known him all their lives. What’s that got to do with it?”

             “I don’t want to hurt him.”

             “He’s a piece of shit!”

             “I don’t have the time for this.”

            Mario gave him a poke. “That’s what he’s counting on, dude. You blow it off, you’re out of business.”

            Leo looked at him. “What business? I’m peddling ceiling fans and eating at my mother’s!”

            Mario plopped his hands on the armrests. “I’m just saying, you take it from Luds, you take it from everyone. It’s a business liability.”

            “He’s a brick shithouse!”

            “So you pay somebody.” He bent into Leo’s line of vision. “Yo, pal, this is pretty basic stuff.”

            He tried the number for the hundredth time. Ludlow answered on the fifteenth ring.

            “Yeah what?”

             “It’s me, Leo.”

             He didn’t answer.

            “We gotta talk, Luds.”

            “We got nothing to talk about. I told you, Leo, the fans were boosted.”

             Leo looked to Mario. Mario looked away.

             “Mario says I should come after you.” Leo ducked an empty beer can.

            “Mario? That fucking lowlife?”

             “But I say we can work this out. Like gentlemen, whaddya think, Luds?”

            “Tell Mario to go fuck himself.”

            “I get my half and I forget all about it,” Leo talked the talk.

            “Come on, Lip, what are you gonna do? I say they were boosted they were boosted. You can think whatever Mario wants you to.”

            “Don’t do this, Ludsy.”

            “Gotta go.”      


            A rainout forced a double header. Leo sat away from the crowd. He liked the new stadium but it wasn’t his stadium. His stadium was the Vet, gone without a trace. He watched the game and thought about Luds and how he should have seen this coming. Ludlow was a crook. And Mario was right. Once word got out he’d be stiffed and all accounts would go into arrears. Leo couldn’t take a hit right now. He was living on credit cards as it was.

            The Phils scored in the first. He thought of dropping a dime on Luds then ruled it out. Then the cop are in and everyone’s pissed and he’s out of business anyway. Should have gone to college with the rest of the goobers. Should have joined the fucking business. Had to be a hustler, no nine to five for Leo the Lip. Now Ludlow wanted to muscle in. Who muscled in on ceiling fans?

     Pittsburgh scored three in the fifth and the Phils yanked the starter. Leo spotted Pete Newlin but pretended not to. Predictably, Pete waved his arms and started over.

            “HEY LEO! HEY, RIGHT HERE!”

            “Hey Newlin, I’m kinda busy right now.”

            “I just wanted to tell you, that Jackie Ludlow is an asshole.”


            “I told Dooley and them. I said you’d beat the balls off him.”

            “Again, thanks.”

            “That fucker will rue the fucking day, yo!”

            Pittsburgh scored three more in the eighth. Leo didn’t stick around for game two.


            Luds’ truck was in the driveway. Leo circled the block a few times then parked in the church lot.

            “Okay, Now what?” he asked himself.

            Butch Isler had called offering his services. Not out of loyalty, he’d said, Ludlow just pissed people off. Leo said he’d get back to him but he knew he wouldn’t. Even if he wanted to he couldn’t afford it. Big Butchie was top of the line.

            By now the news was all over Pennsport. The early line gave Leo the nod with an assist to Butchie. Every passing minute made it worse. If the other shoe didn’t fall soon he wouldn’t be able to show his face.

            And Ludlow was crazy. Once Leo made a move it would be his turn and it wasn’t hard to guess where the money would go on that. Which left what?

            Dory answered the door, walked him to the yard like she didn’t have a clue. Who was she kidding? Ludlow sat at the picnic table talking on the phone. He saw Leo in the doorway and rolled his eyes.

            “Yeah, I know, that’s why I’m calling,” he growled into the phone. ”You’re damn right I’m pissed. Now how do you want to do it?”

            Leo sat opposite. Ludlow yacked and yacked. Leo reached over and pressed the button.

            “Hey Leo, what the fuck?”

            “Sit down, Luds. You’re neighbors are gawking.”

            “Fuck them and fuck you, too.”

            “What are you gonna do, hump around to every job site in the city?”

            Ludlow smirked. “Face it, Leo, you’ve lost the touch. You let that old dago, Bennie jerk you around for nickels on the dollar. I get forty a pop for ‘em.”

            “Okay, I see your point. Give me my grand and go peddle your wares.”

            “Or else what?”

            Leo watched a small bird hop across the driveway. He thought of Julie lying in the sun on Goat Rock Beach. He got up from the table and shoved his hands in his pockets. 

            “Yo Luds. That’s it?”

            “Hey, we can go around and around but basically, yeah.”

            Leo left by the side gate. He could hear the big fuck laughing on the phone as he crossed the street. In his head he saw himself go to the car and get his gun. One to the chest, one to the head was how you fixed these things. Only Leo didn’t have a gun. The only time he ever shot a gun was on the boardwalk in Wildwood. Plus, if he killed Ludlow he’d have to go to prison. No fucking way he was going to prison over ceiling fans.

            Still he thought about it.

            On the way home he passed Zero and Lou on the Quarthouse corner. They fell all over themselves pretending not to see him.


            In the morning Leo woke with a rock in his gut. He wondered about the way it was here, the deep end as the standard course of action. It wasn’t normal, it couldn’t be. This was as close to murder as Leo would get, but he knew it wasn’t all that close. He could handle himself in a spot but he didn’t have a murder in him. He knew it and Ludlow knew he knew it.

            If there was a way out Leo couldn’t find it.


            “So I’ve been thinking.” Julie paused.


            “We could try it again, Leo. I know now that I need you.”

             “To what? Help you move?”

            “Okay, I deserve that. I know I was a shit about Mario, but he’s so–”

            “You gotta stop calling Julie. Please.”

            “You miss me, Leo. Marianne told me you hardly ever come out of the house.”

            Leo unplugged the phone. The next day he sold the SUV.


            “Leo, hey! Jesus Christ! What’s it been, ten years?”

            “How are you Len? You look good.”

            “Hey! I heard you got married a while back. How’s it working out?”

            “It didn’t,” Leo shrugged. “I make a lousy husband.”

            “Tell me about it. I get a different set of kids every freaking weekend.”

             Leo took the chair across the desk. “I see your mug in the papers, real estate broker extraordinaire. You’ve done well, Len.”

            He gave his paunch a pat. “Well, I can’t complain. But you didn’t come all the way down here to sing my praises. What is it I can do for you, Leo?”

            “I want to sell.”

            Len looked offended. “Your place? It’s a jewel box, man. I can’t let you do it!”

             “Got to. I owe some money. Plus I think my ex has her eye on a slice.”

             “Well, she’ll get that, friend. Community property.”

             “Maybe not. It’s still in my name. ”

            Lenny’s gaze dropped to his shoes. “Jeez, I don’t know, Leo. It sounds unethical.”

             Leo pulled a wad from his pocket and slapped it on the desk. “One thousand up front. Plus five percent.”

             Len didn’t look at the money. “Maybe we can finagle something.”

            “It’s gotta be fast. All offers considered, I’ll take the hit. And I’d like it to be someone, you know, … responsible.”

            “I have that someone in mind as we speak.”

            “And no sign. It’s gotta be discrete.”

            “I think I can handle this for you without much problem, Leo.”

            “Like I said. Extraordinaire.”


            Leo walked away with 150 thou. Not bad for the old neighborhood, bless the Irish and their woodwork. He left a message on Gail’s machine and stashed 50 grand in his mother’s account. When he got settled in he’d send his address. Palm Beach, maybe, hustle the widows. Or Tempe. He heard it was nice in Tempe.

Tom  Larsen  was  a  journeyman  printer  for  twenty years before scrapping it all for the writer’s life. His work has appeared in Newsday, New Millennium Writing and Antietam Review. His short story "Lids" was  included  in Best American Mystery Stories – 2004. Tom and his wife Andree lived for ten years in the Pennsport section of South Philadelphia. "The Lip" is one of six stories from his South Philly collection "Downtown".   His  first novel "Flawed" will be released this fall.

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