So I looked around at Tony and he ain't even paying attention. Christ!
Ralphie the Roach was dead on the sidewalk and Tony was giving the eye to some babe across the street. Now I know that Tony and the Roach go way back. They grew up in the same apartment building on Forty-ninth Street, and they were best friends when they were kids.
Anyway, I grabbed Tony by the arm and started yelling.
"Tony! Look, man! O'Malley just killed Ralphie!"
Tony jerked around, but before he could say a word it hit me - the Roach wasn't even around no more, or at least he wasn't supposed to be. The feds put Ralphie in witness protection about a year ago when he ratted out on Tommy O'Malley for the Club Chic hit. Nobody had seen the Roach since. Not till today anyway, and I had to say I'd seen him looking better. While I'm thinking this, and before I can get it out, Tony pulls away.
"What's the matter with you, Johnny? You made me lose the babe! Where'd she go? Did you see what door she went in?"
"Tony, O'Malley just whacked Ralphie the Roach!"
He Looked down the sidewalk where Billy was still standing over the Roach. He shrugged.
"So what? He's whacked the fuck out a dozen times already."
"Johnny, when I brought you to Mulberry Street I said you'd see some strange shit, didn't I?"
"Well, you just seen some. Don't worry about it. Let's cross the street and see if we can catch up to that babe. Damn, she was hot!"
I followed Tony up and down Mulberry for the next two hours, and we never caught sight of the girl he had the hots for. She could have walked up and shoved her tits in my nose, probably, and I wouldn't have seen her. I kept thinking about Billy O'Malley whacking Ralphie the Roach and how Tony said he'd already whacked him a dozen times. I ain't no cherry. Growing up where me, Tony, the O'Malleys and the Roach did you see all kinds of shit. I'd seen three or four guys whacked in broad daylight before. But I never knew nobody that got whacked more than once!
Until the night before I never heard of Mulberry Street. Me and Tony was sitting on the stoop in front of my place, just hanging out. He had just drained the last of a quart of beer when he said: "Johnny, me and you have got to go to Mulberry Street one day."
"Where the hell is Mulberry Street?"
"A couple of blocks over from here."
"Yeah? Then how come I lived here all my life and never heard of no `Mulberry Street'?"
"Everybody don't know about it."
I gave him a look. "You're drunk, man. There's no such street around here. Even if there was, why would I want to go?"
Tony grinned and set the empty bottle down. "Now there's the question, my man." He stood up and stretched. "Tomorrow, Johnny. Me and you. Mulberry Street."
"Get the fuck outta here, Tony. You're drunk. Go home."
"Yeah? See you tomorrow, Johnny." I watched him as he walked away, singing to himself. Mulberry Street!
Next day I'm shooting pool at Frankie's Lounge. About three o'clock Tony walks in, and he's hungover like a bastard. I watch him go up to the bar before I hang up my stick and walk over.
"Tony, baby, how's it hanging?"
He gave me the evil eye but didn't say nothing.
"You don't look so good, Tony."
He still didn't say nothing, so I kept digging. "Hey, Tony. I heard that Mulberry Street is hot today. Wanna go take a look?"
That got him. "Mulberry Street? Where the fuck did you hear about Mulberry?"
He sounded pissed, but I kept on. "You told me, man. Said we was going over there today."
"I did?" He lowered his head and moaned. "Christ, I must have been shit- faced."
Now he had me going. I figured there must be something to this `Mulberry Street' gag. "Maybe so, Tony, but you said we was going to Mulberry. You and me. Today."
I could see he was getting real uncomfortable, but I couldn't let it go. "So, when are we going?"
"Stop busting my balls, Johnny!"
"Hey, I ain't busting your balls. You was the one said we were going."
"Forget it. I was drunk, like you said."
"Nah, man, I ain't forgetting it. I'm ready to go."
He slammed his fist on the bar. "Dammit, Johnny!" I said nothing, just watched him. I knew he was pissed, but me and Tony had been friends for a long time. Finally, he looked at me and threw up his hands. "OK, man. But there's some things you gotta understand first."
So he told me. He said Mulberry Street is a place for guys like us that maybe ain't had too many breaks and probably ain't gonna get many. He said it's real but it's not real, which didn't make any sense, but I kept listening, because I never heard Tony or nobody else talk like that. On Mulberry Street some strange shit happens, but because it's Mulberry Street everybody minds their own business. He said that Mulberry Street is the TRUTH, but not to everybody. After about ten minutes of this he stopped. I didn't know whether to laugh at him or get him to a shrink.
"Let me see now, Tony. If I understand, `Mulberry Street' sounds like some kind of Peter Pan land."
"See why I didn't want to tell you?"
I looked him over for a minute, then made up my mind. "OK, let's go."
He didn't say a word, just killed the last of his beer and started for the door. Outside, we walked to Rampart Avenue, a block over from Frankie's. About halfway up Rampart we came to an alley between Lucky's Pawn Shop and the dry cleaners. Funny thing was I didn't remember ever seeing this alley before. Tony stopped in front of the alley.
"Alright. Just remember you gotta believe in Mulberry Street."
"Sure man. Whatever you say."
"I'm serious, Johnny. You gotta believe."
"I believe, Tony." And I guess I did, because as I followed him down the alley, about halfway to the back it was like the air started to get wavy, like when the heat rises off the street in summer. For a second I was scared, and it was hard to breathe. Then it was like the air got clearer than I'd ever seen - no waves, no smog, and everything came into focus. I looked up into a sky so blue it hurt. To my left was a street sign: "Mulberry."
Tony was still in front of me. I walked up next to him and he turned and gave me this shit-eating grin. It was right about then that he spotted the babe and I saw Billy O'Malley stomping Ralphie the Roach.
After Tony finally gave up on finding the broad we left. Getting off Mulberry is easy enough, just walk past either end of the block and you find yourself back in the alley on Rampart. When we got to the end of the alley Tony asked me what I thought.
"I don't know what to think, man. Ralphie got whacked, and you said he'd been whacked a dozen times, and Ralphie ain't even supposed to be around no more."
"He ain't around for us, Johnny, but he is for Billy. At least on Mulberry Street."
I shook my head. "I guess I don't get it, Tony."
"You will. But you don't say nothing about Mulberry to anybody else, right?"
"Yeah, sure. Look man, I'm pretty tired. I think I'll go home."
"Sure, Johnny. See you tomorrow."
I didn't sleep much that night, what with thinking about Mulberry Street and what I saw there. There was no figuring it out, I decided, but it was just too damn weird for me, and no way was I going back.
But Mulberry was like a magnet. Next night I hooked up with Tony and talked him into taking me back. I didn't see the Roach or O'Malley that night, but I did see Harry Marletti and his old man sitting on the curb drinking wine like I remembered seeing them when I was a kid. Then I remembered that old man Marletti had been dead for about ten years. My folks made me go to the funeral. That was enough of Mulberry for one night.
Tony laughed at me the next day for getting spooked about old man Marletti. "Johnny, if you're going to hang on Mulberry, you better get used to that shit."
"It gives me the creeps."
"Yeah? Well, maybe you better not go any more."
But I did go back, and it wasn't too long before I decided to try it on my own, without Tony. The first time through the alley by myself was a little scary, but before long it was no sweat at all. Then the trouble with Tony started. Tony had a younger sister, Lisa, just graduated from high school. With Lisa it was like she walked in her house one day as a nice, average girl and came out the next morning a goddess. At least that was how she affected me. All of a sudden, this little girl that I had known for years was a knockout. I wasn't sure how Tony would act if I told him I wanted to ask his baby sister out, but I never expected him to act the way he did.
"You wanna do what?"
"I want to ask Lisa out."
"No fucking way, man. You stay the fuck away from my sister!"
"Hey, this is Johnny, man. What's your problem?"
"I know who it is man, and you're my problem. But I catch you around Lisa I'm gonna be YOUR problem, understand?"
"What the fuck is wrong with you man, talking to me like I'm some dirtbag? I thought we was friends."
He stuck his finger in my chest. "We may be friends, Johnny, but the friendship ends with my little sister." We were standing in front of his house, and I watched as he turned away from me and mounted the steps to the door, slamming it behind him.
The next day he came around and gave me a half-ass apology. He told me that he was just looking out for Lisa, and that he hoped I understood. I understood: I wasn't good enough for her.
Two nights later I was on Mulberry, still pissed at Tony, when I got the idea. Why not? I hadn't done much on Mulberry besides look till then, so I figured it was time to do something for myself. I closed my eyes and started to concentrate, picturing that gorgeous face. I still had my eyes closed when I felt someone touch my arm and a sweet voice say: "Johnny?" There she was, right in front of me, and if she wasn't real I couldn't tell the difference. Lisa!
I didn't waste any time. I grabbed her hand and headed for the Mulberry Cafe'. We sat down beside each other in the last booth. Before I could take a deep breath she was all over me, and I was in heaven. But I made a mistake- we were facing the back of the room, and I never saw Tony come in.
A hand came down on Lisa's shoulder and turned her away from me. I looked around just as Tony took his other hand and slapped her across the face. Lisa screamed, and before I could get up Tony hit me with as good a right hand as I'd felt in a while. I fell back across the table, and Tony grabbed Lisa and pulled her out of the booth, holding on to her with his left hand and pointing at me with his right.
"You motherfucker, you little cockroach you! I told you to stay away from my baby sister!"
I couldn't believe this was going down. I pushed myself up off the table but stayed out of reach of Tony's right. He was still my best friend, and I didn't want to fight him. But this didn't make sense.
"Damn, Tony! Lighten up, man; this is Mulberry Street!"
"I don't give a shit if it's fucking Wall Street, asshole! You stay away from Lisa! Here or anywhere else!"
I didn't have a chance to say anything else. Tony pulled Lisa out of the cafe' while I rubbed my jaw and the other patrons were busy looking the other way.
I stayed away from Tony and Mulberry Street for the next few days. Tony didn't come around and apologize this time, and I still couldn't figure it out. I mean, Mulberry Street wasn't real, right? So what's he getting so fucking upset about? But it seemed that the more I thought about it the more miserable I was. Not only was I losing my best friend, but I was hot for, hell, I was in love with his baby sister. The whole damn situation was tearing me in half.
I guess it was a week later that I decided to go over to Mulberry, if for nothing else to get my mind off Tony and Lisa for a while. When I came out of the alley on Rampart I saw a crowd about twenty yards down the block, pointing at something on the sidewalk. Nobody paid any attention to anybody else's business here. If something drew a crowd, it had to be good.
When I walked up some of the people in the crowd gave me a funny look. I shoved between a couple of old guys, but all I saw was some dude kicking the shit out some other poor fuck. I couldn't see his face, but the guy getting kicked wasn't moving. I looked around the crowd again, and I seen more of them giving me a weird stare. I was starting to get the creeps for some reason, but I still couldn't see what the big fuss was about. People get beat and whacked every day on Mulberry, and like Tony said, it's real but it ain't real.
About then, the dude doing the kicking stopped. He stepped back, pulled an automatic from his pants and put two right in the guy's chest. When he stepped to the side I finally got a clear look at the other dude's face. Jesus Christ! It was me laying there! Bloody and shot to shit, but me!
I felt dizzy looking down at that face, and for a second I thought I was gonna be sick. Then the shooter turns around, looks straight at me, and grins. The shooter was me! Christ, I'd just whacked myself!
I lost it. I threw up right there on the sidewalk in front of God and everybody. This was too weird, man, weirder than anything I'd ever seen. Think about it: How would you like to watch yourself whack yourself?
When I could stand up straight everybody was gone, except for the body laying on the sidewalk. I couldn't look at that face again so I ran to the end of the street. Back in the alley off Rampart I stopped and tried to figure out what I'd seen, but it just made my head hurt.
I've thought about that afternoon on Mulberry a lot since then, but I can't make any more sense of it now than I ever could. Tony quit coming around, so I couldn't ask him about it if I wanted to. Sometimes I remember what he first told me about what goes on over there: It's real, and it ain't real. I doubt I'll ever figure it out. But I ain't going back to Mulberry Street.
About the writer in his own words: "Over the past two decades I have pursued several 'careers:' accountant, sales representative, and sales manager with a large forest products company; account manager with a competing company in the same industry; and graduate assistant in history. I held the last position in the history department at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where I completed the requirements for an M.A. in history, save writing the thesis, which I may yet discover the motivation to finish!
About a year ago I made the commitment to writing full-time, collecting mostly rejection slips until fairly recently. Within the past months, however, I have published stories in Veils Magazine, EWG Presents, Pegasus Online, AfterImages, Creative Ooze and Slumgullion.
I have short fiction scheduled for publication in PYROWORDS and Knightmares, and my first print publication is tentatively scheduled for October in the literary journal The Moraine. Like most struggling writers, I have a novel in progress (Tattooed On the Heart) for which I have fond hopes. I live in Knoxville, TN with my wife Becki and our cats, Hobbes and Dilbert, both of whom are less forgiving critics of my work than my patient and long-suffering spouse.
Larry can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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