GIMME FICTION: The Manton Chronicles




At that time Ronnie Stimola was my next-door neighbor. Ronnie was 33 and lived with his girlfriend Dina in the second-floor apartment of a rowhouse owned by his mother. Ronnie hung around with Gooch Amari. Ronnie and Gooch had been robbing neighborhood grocers on and off since high school. First, the old-school nigger grocers along 7th Street, then the gook take-out stores along Washington Avenue, and then the Mexican grocers that began popping up around 9th Street. It was a couple hundred dollars when they needed it. But then Gooch shot the Mexican in the eye, and that was the end of a lot of things.


They were in that little bodega on 8th and Federal, the one with the whitewashed brick facade and the half-lit neon tamale hanging in the window. They were dusted. Gooch had brought some laced joints over to Ronnie’s an hour earlier. “It’s just a little bit,” said Gooch. “We’ll be fine.”

But they were a mess. Gooch’s eyes were reddened like coals and wide as ashtrays and his cut-knuckle hands were trembling with the weight of the gun. The gun was a secondhand .38 Special the two of them had picked up at Policimo’s on Spring Garden. It had a four-inch barrel and a polished walnut grip, and Eddie at Policimo’s said it was originally a Royal Hong Kong police revolver. It cost $97.63, and Ronnie paid for it with a hundred in tens he took from his mother?s sewing tin. And though it was technically Ronnie?s gun, both of them thought it best that Gooch carry it whenever they robbed grocers — gook, Mexican or otherwise.

Five nights after they bought it, Gooch stuck the Royal Hong Kong Police revolver in the mouth of the wife of Kim Yang, owner of Wings More Deli, and Ronnie held a brown paper bag out for Kim Yang to fill from the register. Afterward, they smoked a bowl in Ronnie’s living room. Dina was working a double shift at the hospital. Gooch was nodding off. Ronnie was turning over in his lap the small, wooden model of the “Santa Maria” that Dina had bought him for his birthday. The National Geographic Channel was playing on the television, something about how sea trout lived dangerous and complicated lives, swimming hundreds of miles to spawn but that seven out of 10 die in the process anyway.

“It sounded like she was trying to pray,” said Ronnie.

“Shut up,” said Gooch.

Before the gun, Ronnie and Gooch would walk into a grocery store and Gooch would pour himself a cup of coffee and throw it in the cashier?s face. That worked fine for a long while, but then Steve Spencer of the Daily News wrote a column dubbing them ?The Splash and Grab Bandits.? Ronnie and Gooch read the column at the Happy Lounge, sitting next to the Donkey Kong machine. Van Halen was playing over the jukebox. Gooch was chain smoking, and every few minutes he?d yell ?shit? and slam his palm against the bar. Ronnie was drinking cherry brandy on the rocks ? Ronnie always drank cherry brandy on the rocks. He was reading the column for the third time.

“Ocular,” he said, quoting the newspaper. “The eyes, right?”

“The ears, I think,” Gooch answered. He had his back to Ronnie and was blowing his smoke towards the window.

“Modus operandi,” said Ronnie. “Means motive, right? Fuck this guy know about anyone?s motives?”

Gooch said nothing for a few minutes and then he said, “We gotta get a gun.”

The Mexican Gooch shot in the eye wasn?t opening the register like Gooch was yelling to, was just standing there grinning this big, white-toothed Mexican grin, all happy looking, like he wanted to hug Gooch or something, like he knew something Gooch didn’t. That was rattling Gooch enough on its own, but then, Gooch, he’s so dusted, he thinks the Mexican’s face is melting — melting into brown Mexican face water, and Gooch thinks this water is collecting in a pool around his feet, so he takes two steps back from the counter, yells, “Stop, stop” and fires one bullet through the corner of the Mexican’s right eye. The Mexican’s body knocked the plastic rosary beads and double-A batteries off their hanging hooks. His blood and his right eye and his brains splattered the plastic portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Gooch yelled, “Shit, man. Shit.”

Ronnie, just as dusted as Gooch, pissed his pants and stumbled into a stack of orange soda bottles. The cops cornered them a half-mile down Washington after Ronnie drove his Impala into the Old Nickel Street Projects.

Gooch was banging on the windows, yelling, “Shit, man. No, no”

It was then that Ronnie noticed Gooch was sobbing.

One of the arresting officer’s name tag said, “Retchenburg.” He had red hair and a fat face and couldn’t have been more than 22. Snot flew from his nose as he pulled Ronnie from the car and slammed him down on the pavement.

Ronnie’s breath escaped him and he felt a cold, metallic pain on the left side of his skull where a shard of a broken beer bottle entered his cheek above the lip and lodged in his upper gums. A thick, warm wetness filled Ronnie’s mouth. He did not spit out the wetness and he did not struggle with the fat-faced cop either. He let his body go limp, and despite the fat-faced cop’s weight pressing into him and all the shouting and Gooch’s sobbing — which was louder and more hysterical now — and the stabbing pain in his skull and the warm wetness in his mouth, a comforting silence began to embrace the moment for Ronnie.

He felt safe under the weight of the fat-faced cop, removed even, and after the initial confusion of feeling this way, Ronnie began to smile. His eyes drifted across Washington Avenue towards Sacks Field — rock-strewn and weed-strangled now, where the Mexicans held their Sunday morning soccer matches, but also where he had played Little League baseball as a child.

The eighth grade team photo appeared in Ronnie’s mind. Coach LaTanza had the players line up in front of the bleachers according to height. Ronnie, being the shortest, stood closest to the camera. His pants were pulled above his waist and his red-and-white jersey clung to the rolls of his belly. There was a ketchup stain on his chest and his scraggly brown hair hung over his ears from under a white cabana hat.

Ronnie had left his red Pioneers cap on a table outside Pat’s Steaks. He had stopped there on the way to practice for a wiz wit, and when he ran back for his cap it was gone. When he ran home, both of his older brothers’ rooms were locked. Not knowing what else to do, Ronnie climbed on top of a footstool and stretched his hand to the top of his father’s closest.

When Ronnie arrived for the team photo, Coach LaTanza just shook his head and asked if he was going on vacation with that hat. In the team photo, Ronnie seems afraid, as if he expects the cameraman to reach out and smack his face at any moment.

The warm wetness was filling Ronnie’s throat now and he was choking on it, and he was remembering how he hid the team photo in his hamper for five days before his mother found it, and remembering how when she found it she held it against her breasts, sighed in sorrow for herself, and whispered, “Mie sbagilare.”

The cop’s knee was pressing into the middle of Ronnie’s back and Ronnie could feel the coldness of the handcuffs and could hear the huckster’s songs again. He was 8 years old, a summer job his Uncle Felix gave him working his fruit stand on 9th and Washington. Ronnie would stand atop the watermelon stack — six or seven feet high at the beginning of the day — and toss melons down to his older cousins, Anthony and Frank. Ronnie loved standing up there — he could see almost all the way to Broad Street — but he didn’t like to sing the huckster songs. Didn’t like drawing the attention to himself.

But in the mornings and in the early afternoons, when the street traffic was busiest and their voices could be lost in the din, Anthony and Frank would sing the words they learned from memory by kneeling behind crates and listening to Old Joey Bubbles sing as he unloaded crates of sirloin and veal. They sung the huckster song lyrics to the music they heard on their grandparents’ records.

First Anthony:

Six months after that in the jailhouse where I sat
the fleas were playing hockey on my balls
but the hair it grew so thick from my asshole to my dick
that the fleas could not play hockey anymore.

Then Frank:

Six months after that in the jailhouse where I sat
the fleas were playing hockey on my balls
but the hair it grew so thick from my asshole to my dick
that the fleas could not play hockey anymore.

And Ronnie would stand atop the watermelon stack and scratch his arms — Ronnie always scratched his arms when he got overly excited — and laugh until his sides hurt.

And lying in the alleyway, Ronnie began to laugh, a gurgling noise at first as the blood was spilling from his mouth, but then the blood thinned and the laughter built upon itself, and he was laughing loudly, and the laughter was what the fat-faced cop heard as he ran his hand over the piss in Ronnie’s pants.

The fat-faced cop held his hand up before him and he made the face a baby makes after licking a lemon. He wiped his hand on the back of Ronnie’s Charlotte Hornets Starter jacket, then took two steps back to attain the proper balance and kicked Ronnie in the balls.

Soon, it was raining, and the crowd that had gathered covered their heads with their jackets or dirty newspapers and filed back into the projects.

Six months into Graterford, a nigger named Kelvin stabbed Gooch in the neck with a sharpened spoon over 30 dollars’ worth worth of Devil Dogs snack cakes Gooch had taken from the nigger in a card game. The nigger said Gooch had marked the deck and Gooch bled out on the tile floor outside the prison laundry room.

A new Mexican moved into the bodega on 8th and Federal about three months after the one Gooch shot was buried.

Ronnie did six years and lost a few toes to diabetes along the way. I never saw much of him after he got out.

He had a gray cat, I think. Puddles. Or maybe it was Dina’s.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mike Newall is a freelance writer living in South Philadelphia. His work has appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, Philadelphia CityPaper, the Inquirer and National Catholic Reporter. He lives on Manton Street.

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