“I’ve said many, many, many unkind things about Philadelphia, and I meant every one.”
I’ve lived in this city far too long. Philadelphia is full of filthy streets and fatties. Being the home of the cheese-steak hasn’t done the people any favours. Sometimes it’s warm and muggy and pigeons lie around lethargically and your butter always softens real quick for your afternoon ham sandwich. But then, winter rolls in with spikes on its boots and cuts your cheek with a blade of ice and cuts and cuts and keeps cutting until your socks bite your toes and your skin is as flaky as careless shredding on a block of blue cheese.
And here I stand at the table with my family. Philadelphia born and bred. I’ve never put one foot into Ohio or Virginia or Maryland or Delaware. I would have made it to Arizona in October if Mom hadn’t wrapped a tight leash around the family credit card.
‘Sit,’ Dad barks at me, as if I’m our neighbour’s Presa Canario, Princess.
Poor Princess. Every Monday, I watch the yellow sunlight drift through the glass and illuminate the bristles on the legs of the Hacklemesh Weavers clustered in the corner of my room. When I hear the padlock click, I open my bed-side drawer and pull a box from the plastic wrap of the Tic Tac multi-pack. Every Monday, I watch Buck mow the grass. I sit by the window, slamming the orange box down at the perfect angle on the edge of the window sill. I place a Tic Tac in my mouth and soften it and chew it and swallow, throw one in the air, catch it on my tongue and soften it and chew it and swallow. Then I cross my fingers.
‘I said sit.’
The beauty of a collapsible cage is that it is collapsible. Every Monday, I place the last Tic Tac on the sill in the hope that one day Princess will break through the metal bars and eat Buck while he’s scratching his filthy redneck scalp. I imagine I’ll walk down and offer his girlfriend Tiffany a cigarette and offer her a Tic Tac and give Princess a scratch behind the ear. Tit for tat for a tiny morsel of entertainment in a city sucked dry by dope and derision.
‘Jacob sit, now. Next to your sister,’ says Dad.
‘Father, relax. I’ll sit,’ I say.
I lean forward towards the table snacks. The box of See’s candies feels cool in my hands. I pull it towards me and it rattles softly like a maraca. Everyone stares sharply as I pop a bubble in the wrap.
‘Not necessary,’ says Mom, shaking her head.
As Gram rambles, I pick up the brown paper from the box and sniff the nutty, Easter-like scent. I take a bite and assess the centre. The caramel is beige as bitter tea. It’s chewy. Gram finishes her speech about the Blanket Society. Now she’ll ask me about life at the burger store and history and examinations and guitar and friends and probably, girls.
‘I don’t swing that way, Gram,’ I’ll remind her, again.
Again and again and again and again. When Gram was my age she wasn’t into computers or cell phones or video games or telly but rather tennis and the pictures and young men and picnics and picnics with young men. Young men, Jacob, you and young men? No I don’t think that’s right, my dear.
I stare at the gold pendulum swinging left and right ever so slowly above Gram’s head. I study the clock’s face. It pokes a thin black tongue at me. I’ve never noticed the scratch next to Roman numeral seven.
‘Ding dong, ding dong,’ it sings.
I hope the clock doesn’t unhinge and peel itself from the wallpaper.
‘Ding dong, ding dong,’ it sings again.
I hope it doesn’t drop from the wall and fall onto Gram’s head and make her stop yapping like a Chihuahua in a tiny crochet jacket. The wallpaper really is ugly. It looks like frothy Cool-Aid. Mom had puffed out her chest at every wallpaper store in the city back when they were renovating and looked more than deflated fumbling at registers and stuffing rolls of old stock into the back of her grey Ford Escort.
‘Aint that right, Jacob?’ says Dad, nostrils flaring.
‘Huh? Ah yep, Dad,’ I say.
Roman numeral three looks like a little cage.
‘Jacob has a friend called Jess,’ says Dad, making twitching rabbit ears with his sausage fingers. ‘She’s here all the time.’
I try to roll my eyes as far into my head as I can without detaching an eye-string.
‘Is it cherry pie for dessert, Mom?’ I ask.
Mom plays with her necklace.
‘Jess is lovely,’ continues Dad. ‘She’s sophomore at Jacob’s school and I’ve heard she’s top of her volleyball team.’
‘Dad, shut up,’ I say, looking out the window.
A maple brushes its fingers against the glass. A distant tree sags under the weight of a thousand red ants. Ants, scuttling and smothering. I imagine a leaf snapping off in fall and floating in the warm breeze and floating down the street, past the main drag of stores and past the power station and all the way to the Atlantic Ocean where a current could carry it to somewhere distant like Israel or Italy or India. Escape this hell-hole little leaf, while you can. Have a say in your own damn life, while you can. I’ve said many, many, many unkind things about Philadelphia, and I meant every one.
The Cringe welcomes Carmel Purcell, the newest addition to our writing team. Look forward to a variety of articles and short fiction from Carmel in the coming months.