They say Philly is a city of neighborhoods, but it's really a city of neighborhood taps. There they sit, one on every corner, with the same hanging sign, the same glass block windows, the same softball trophies, the same loyalty among their denizens. When you're a Philly guy you can count your crucial affiliations on the fingers of one hand; you got your mom, you got your church, you got your string band, you got your saloon, you got your wife, and the only thing you ever think of changing is your wife.
Jimmy T's was just such a neighborhood joint. When Beth and I stepped inside we were immediately eyed, and for good reason. We were strangers, we were wearing suits, we had all our teeth.
The dank, narrow bar was decorated like a VFW hall, Flyers pictures taped to bare walls, cheap Formica tables, a pool table wedged into the back, a juke box in the corner with its clear plastic cover smashed. Someone had made an unwise selection, maybe something not sung by Sinatra. Working men of all ages slumped at the bar, leaned on the tables, wiped their noses, sucked down beers, complained about politics, the economy, the Eagles, the cheese steaks at Genos, the riffraff moving in from the west, their girlfriends, their wives, their kids, their lives, their goddamned lives. Before we stepped in it had been sullenly loud, but the moment we opened the door it had quieted as if for a show. It didn't take long to realize we were it. I figured we might as well make it a good one.
"You sure yous are in the right place?" said the bartender, a crag of a man with a great head of white hair and a missing arm. The thief, Earl Ganz, I presumed.
"We're in the right place," I said. "I'll have a seabreeze."
Ganz blinked at me. "Say what?"
"A seabreeze. It's a drink."
"Hey, Charlie," said Ganz without looking away, "guy in the suit says he wants something called a seabreeze."
A slim-jim at the end of the bar, long, brown and desiccated, said in a rasp, "Tell him to drive his ass on down to Wildwood, face east, open his mouth."
I turned away from the derisive laughter swelling behind me. "You don't know how to make a seabreeze?"
"Are you really sure yous in the right place. We don't got no ferns here."
"Careful," I said. "My mother's name is Fern."
"No, not really. Do you have grapefruit juice?"
"It's late for breakfast, ain't it?"
"You kidding me, right?"
I let out a long disappointed breath. "Why don't you then just inform me as to the specialty of the house?"
Earl Ganz blinked at me a couple times more. "Hey, Charlie. Man here wants the speciality of the house."
"Give him a wit," said Charlie.
"A wit?" I said. "Something Noel Coward would have ordered, no doubt."
One of the guys behind me said, "Wasn't he the councilman up in the third district, caught with that girl?"
"Yes, he was," I replied. "All right, Earl, let me have a wit."
Earl took a beer glass, stuck it under the Bud spigot, pulled the spigot with his stump, placed it before me.
I looked up at him, puzzled. "That it?"
He took a shot glass, slammed it on the bar next to my beer, filled it with tequila. When I reached for the tequila, he slapped my hand away. Then he lifted the shot glass, hovered it over the beer, slop dropped it inside. The beer fizzled and foamed and flowed over the edges of the mug.
"What the hell's that?" I said.
"A guy comes in," said Earl "sits down, says, 'Earl let me have a Bud,' he gets just the beer. But he says, 'Let me have a Bud wit,' then this is what he gets." He leaned forward, cocked his head at me. "Mister, it's the closest we got to a speciality of the house."
I stared at the still foaming drink for maybe a bit too long, because an undercurrent of laughter started rising from behind me.
Beth reached over, snatched the beer with the shot glass still inside, downed it in a quick series of swallows, slammed the empty back on the bar so the shot glass shook. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, swallowed a belch.
"How was it, missy?" said Earl.
"It's not a seabreeze," said Beth, "but it'll do."
I took a twenty out of my wallet, dropped it on the bar. When another wit sat before me, boiling over, I lifted the glass high, turned to face the crew watching me from among the tables, said loudly, "To Joey Cheaps," and downed my drink.
It roiled in my stomach like a pint of sick. I shook my head, gasped out a "God, that's bad."
I expected a jiggle of laughter at my discomfort with the drink, I expected a few expressions of surprise that I had mentioned Joey Parma, I expected maybe a few murmurs of assent to my toast, a few sad exclamations of poor bastard as they remembered the man who had turned Jimmy T's into his local tap. I expected something different than what I got, which was a dark, glum silence.
It took me a minute to figure it out, but I did.
"So," I said, "how much he end up owing you guys when he died?"
There was a moment more of quiet, and then one of the men said, "A hundred and six."
"Thirty eight," said another.
"Fifty," said a third.
"How about you, Earl?" I said. "What was his tab here?"
"Two hundred, thirty six and fifty nine cents," said Earl. "Approximately."
"Well, we got you all beat," I said. "Three thousand, five hundred. Approximately."
There was a moment of stunned quiet and then someone, barely suppressing his glee, said, "Oh man, you got hosed," and then a wave of nervous laughter hit the bar.
"What were you, his bookies?" someone said.
"Worse," I said. "We were his lawyers."
The entire tap then collapsed into laughter, loud belly-grabbing laughter. Even Charlie at the end of the bar turned his sour gape of a mouth around. "His lawyers," he said in rasp. "What a pair of saps."
"It would have been quicker you just let him burn your money," said another.
"Joey's lawyers. What a perfect pair of saps," said Charlie.
"Hey, Joey's lawyer," said a man, "how'd it feel to be getting it up the bum instead of giving it for a change."
As the laughter spiraled and swelled, I joined in and then I said loudly, "You know what we need to soothe our empty wallets?"
"We need to have ourselves a proper wake for our debts. But not on wits, no more wits for me."
"What yous got in mind?" said Earl Ganz.
"Why don't you send someone to the Wawa for some juice," I said, "and then, Earl, let me teach you how to make a seabreeze."
* * *
It didn't end with a conga line, but it came close.
The first taste Earl took of a seabreeze made his lips twist. You could tell he didn't take to it right off.
"Close your eyes this time," I said.
Earl's eyes blinked shut, the crowd came closer.
"You're on a tropical island. Beyond your lounge chair, the ocean is lapping. A cabana girl, tawny and lean, wearing a lot of nothing" -- catcalls, whistles -- "has handed you your drink. She leans over, her breath is sweet, redolent of coconut, conch."
"Conch?" said Earl, eyes still closed.
"Conch. And she leans ever closer and her warm breath now is in your ear and she whispers, her voice smooth as the white sand beneath her bare feet, 'How is the drink, Earl?. Is it okay? Is it, Earl? Is it okay?'"
Earl took another sip, swilled like a swell, considered carefully. "Better than a stick in ...
Excerpted from PAST DUE © Copyright 2005 by William Lashner. Reprinted with permission by HarperTorch, an imprint of HarperCollins. All rights reserved.