Michael Deagler

We meet on the broad pathway of good faith and goodwill; no advantage shall be taken on either side, but all shall be openness and love. We are the same as if one man’s body was to be divided into two parts; we are of one flesh and blood.
–William Penn

We will live in love with you and all your children, as long as the creeks and rivers run, and while the sun, moon, and stars endure.
–Tamanend of the Lenape Turtle Clan

It’s a love story, like every love story: Conn and Katie a couple like every couple, but different, too, of course, the way every couple is different. And dull. Fascinating. Unremarkable. But let us remark. Conn Driscoll is another Irish fuck from Philadelphia, or near enough to Philadelphia for it to mean the same. He is shortsighted and provincial in the Philadelphia way. No one has ever bothered to ask him what he wants, so it has never much mattered that he’s never known. Katie Keller is from an interior Pennsylvanian county, the child of underpaid teachers or miners or retired carnival folk, another family shattered irrevocably by some hazy generational Rust Belt sorrow. She is hungry and international, the way every peasant girl, in her heart, is hungry and international. Her years in Philadelphia have always only been years spent killing time until she boards a flight to somewhere else.

It’s inconsequential, the vagaries of how they met and came to be together, for in their deepest souls they have always understood each other just as poorly as they do today. But understanding is not essential to love. Love is unconscionably simple. It is elementally basic, like every notion described by a monosyllabic word. Simplicity is what people claim to want, but it is that same simplicity which causes people to second guess, to look back and insist to themselves, “No, that was not love.” But let us look at only the event that transpired right here, because the theme of an entire history is often played out in an instant, and because the ghosts of moments can haunt a place with more zeal than the ghosts of men, or so many self-identifying sensitives believe: here, in Penn Treaty Park, between Delaware Avenue and the Delaware River, between the casino and the columns of the defunct PECO station, which has known such love for centuries.

It is late in March, 2011, and the day looks like it might be warm and hospitable, particularly to Conn, who needs a day like that. He leaves the house dressed optimistically in a threadbare sweatshirt and walks south with some half-formed idea that it won’t be so cold there. He almost turns back twice for a jacket, but decides to tough it out. Toughing it out is his solution to nearly all the problems in his life. He walks on because he likes to walk, to try to clear his head and to try to drone out the sound of the hypothetically prime years of his youth ticking away with the beat of his sneakers on the pavement. He is drawn to the park, drawn to its trees, the way aimless people in the city are drawn to anything that looks like it was once alive and promises to come to life again.

Katie is walking, too, with a dog. The animal, one Cro-Mag, belongs to a friend, but she has volunteered to keep him for a week as an excuse to play parent. Though she will not admit it, Katie is distressed by the persistent and not unfounded doubt that she can never be responsible for another life, at least no warm-blooded mammalian one. In truth, Cro-Mag is largely self-sufficient. He seems, in fact, to regard the arrangement as one in which he is responsible for her. She loves the size of him: he is mostly boxer but at least part Komodo dragon, with a broad saurian back and severe chops. She has been walking him three times a day around the neighborhood, watching people eye him (and her) with a respect that is never far from fear. She loves it; she wants her own Cro-Mag, she wants a whole pack of him. She finds an incredible validation in having a beast ambling at her knees under the gray late-winter sky.

It is at the place where the path bends along the river that they come together, recognizing one another from a distance, the way people who have been in love always can: from the rhythm of the other’s gait, the shape of the silhouette. It is startling, and would be even if they had planned it. They are far enough away that each has a good long while to think of something to say before they have to speak. But even so: what to say? It is over three years they have known each other, seven months they have been apart this time. They have plotted their entire futures together, named their children, imagined each other’s deaths with feelings of horror, pain, and satisfaction. They have sworn promises and curses, made each other better people. And the very worst people. Katie has seen Conn at his drunkest and most violent, though Conn has not seen Katie at hers: that will come later. Conn has watched Katie bury her father, though she was not there when he buried his mother, will not be there, in three months and in nine, when he buries friends (she is done with funerals, that much she has made clear). But for as jaded as they feel, for as cold as they can set their gazes, they are young. They are still tender balloons of love and hate, still will be for years.

“You got a dog,” says Conn, which is the best he can come up with. He knows the fact means something but he doesn’t know what.

“Just for the week,” says Katie, stopping with enough distance to tighten Cro-Mag’s leash short of the spot where Conn stands on the path. “He belongs to a friend.”

A peal of thunder rolls across the plane of the river. Cro-Mag stiffens at the sound.

“He’s big,” says Conn, stepping forward. “Should I be intimidated?” He kneels down and offers the dog his palm.

“He’ll protect me, if that’s what you’re asking,” says Katie, smiling. “Do you intend me harm?”

Cro-Mag sniffs Conn’s hand, licks it with his coarse tongue. “Nah, I’m done with harm,” says Conn, rubbing the beast’s neck. “I’m going full-blown harmless this year, see how it fits me.”

“Oh, see, I’ve gone just the opposite,” says Katie. “I’ve become quite harmful, to myself and to others.”

The thunder cracks somewhere overhead and Cro-Mag startles. He bites down into the flesh of Conn’s hand; Conn yelps in an unmanly manner, Katie shrieks and yanks on the leash, and Cro-Mag’s jaws, mercifully, let go. Then the sky starts to pour. There is another deafening thunderclap and Cro-Mag bolts, freeing the leash from Katie’s clutch. She loses her footing as she attempts to hold her grip and the dog disappears beyond the curtains of rain. Conn helps Katie to her feet, leaves a bloody handprint on her arm. In seconds they are soaked. She looks at him, wet and injured, and laughs.

“Fuck,” she says.

“I’ll get him, if you give me a second,” says Conn, holding his palm out so that the water bathes the teeth marks in his skin. “I don’t think your dog likes thunder.”

“He’s not my dog,” says Katie. She realizes she needs to run after Cro-Mag, that she is responsible for him and his safety. She needs to do this thing. “You’re underdressed.”

“I misread the whole situation,” says Conn, waving his bloody hand in a small circle around the river and the sky. “I thought we were done with winter.”

“Come on,” she says, takes him by the shoulder and shoves him toward a collection of adolescent trees in the middle of the lawn. They crouch in under the branches and she removes her wet scarf to wrap it tightly over the bite on his hand. “This is the last of my clothes you can bleed on today,” she says. The trees are still bare of leaves and the rain finds them easily enough, but it falls softer, in rivulets that run down their faces like water squeezed from a washcloth.

“Hey, thanks for pulling that dog out of my paw,” he says. “I think this makes us friends.”

“Shut up,” she says.

“I mean it,” he continues, his shoulder huddled against hers. “I’m in your debt. For life, now, probably.”

“I don’t need that,” she says, stares into his eyes like they are the windows of a house where she once lived and was happy, sheltered from tempests and the freezing March rain. “I don’t need you,” she says.

They kiss, though, now, for warmth and for every other thing, and this leaves all the rest of it vestigial and irrelevant, like a wet, forgotten dog racing through the streets of a former life.

And yes, dear Christ, the next week he will propose, and yes, she will go along with it for a time because a vocal minority somewhere in her chest craves him like the Second Coming, and yes, they will later part and come back together, will continue to do so, if it’s true that the world follows a circular orbit, and that the calendar has only twelve months and must cycle them all back out again after December. Simple.

Like any love story. Like this love story: from right here, from further back. But now. Right now, April, 1936. A crowd has gathered to watch the police clear the shanties out of Penn Treaty Park. The spectators were not here this morning, when the physical evictions occurred and sent the broken inhabitants off under the eastern light unburdened by the weight of property; no, they did not come out to watch that cruel parade, for all the city is poor and seized with the rare popular philosophy that it is only the grace of God that keeps anyone sheltered, and that to mock the wretched is to invite divine humiliation. Now, though, after lunch, the shanties are burning, and many have come out to see a thing be unmade. Fire is festival, after all.

Alice Deagler stands near the front of the crowd, the toddler in her arms looking around with commensurate interest in the faces, the bonfires, the cyclones of smoke drifting up to the bottomless sky. Alice watches only the tractor as it levels the last of the huts by the river bank. The sheets of plywood and tin snap and fold like the walls of a paper castle, exposing the bottles, blankets, cans, and apple boxes that comprised the late temporary nest of some hapless family. How swiftly, she thinks, a person can trade a house for a shed, a table for a crate, a mattress for a rough scrap of boarding. How swiftly a person can lose even that.

Alice is past forty. She feels older, somehow. She conceived and bore this child past forty: her daughter, Marion, who is a small miracle that way. A tiny half-wanted miracle. Alice prays daily to the Virgin Mary. Around her neck, under the wool of her coat where her daughter’s chubby hand now rests, she wears a medal of the Marian apparition at Fatima, where the Lady of the Rosary appeared and told three apocalyptic secrets to the shepherd children in the meadow. She has a son, too, about to graduate from the LaSalle College High School. He came too early in her life, she often thinks, and Marion too late. It was never the correct time. Perhaps it never is.

The collapse of the hut drives a mud-colored tomcat from some hidden den beneath it, rousing the half-dozen attendant dogs—who have been sniffing at the turned-up soil or flitting at the boot heels of the workmen—to join in clamorous pursuit. A corresponding ruckus rises from the crowd around Alice, shouts and whistles and cheers of appreciation, not for the dogs or their quarry but for the motion of it, for life enacted before their eyes on a track-scarred field. The whole atmosphere of the day reminds Alice of a fair; she recognizes it as the staging of some vernal rite, even if she has never witnessed it before and never will again. It feels inescapably seasonal, as if all these men with their dogs and their tractor do this thing because the year is spinning, just as the farmer does, or the priest. That they are purging the park for the summer only. That the old inhabitants, or new ones, will trickle back to re-erect their lean-tos when the frosts return in October.

Never has Alice been so cognizant of the passage of time, her hair gray as steel now and her daughter growing by the month. And never has she felt so confined by the city, with its claustrophobic, misused space. Businesses have shuttered and people ply their trades out of kitchens and parlors. Homes have been seized and stand shut-up and vacant as bank vaults. Families camp in empty warehouses and the backrooms of shops, coming and going through rear doors and basement windows. As Alice walked with Marion this morning through the streets toward the park, passing the scrappers and tinkers and second-use men, she wondered if the only thing a body can own is a thing it can hold to its chest. And maybe only if it holds tightly.

But Alice is grateful. She reminds herself always to be grateful. She is old enough to know to begin every prayer with thanks, to begin every day running her fingers over what is tactile in her life: the pillow cotton and quilt yarn, the old brass of the bed frame, the plaster wall with its chipping paint and nail burrows. She is grateful for her husband, for his ghost in the mornings, his lingering warmth on the mattress, his stubble mixed with lather around the drain of the washroom sink. His absence she values more than his presence, almost: the knowledge that it is for a job that he rises, that he is employed and has remained so through all these troubled years, even as their neighbors have become so poor. Bill Deagler is strong and reliable, like their skinny trinity on Orange Street with its sturdy walls set deep in the ground, like their son who knows figures and reads Latin. She is grateful for her daughter, warm and heavy in her arms, a complacent child as any. She is grateful. Yes. There is more to life, certainly, but Alice never prays for that. She only barely thinks of it and only in the periphery of her mind where unruly thoughts take root. If she is sinning this day as she observes the fires of spring, it is the sin of allowing herself to believe that life, despite all she has, might still be crueler than it ought to be.

Alice believes this even without the knowledge that two blocks behind her (she could hear the crash if not for the crowd) an ice truck has slammed into a coal truck in the pot-holed bend of Girard Avenue where it crosses Frankford. The trucks have neither seats nor doors: they are piloted from a standing position, like ships, and like ships their pilots are exposed to the violent motions of expedition. The impact throws the driver of the coal truck free of his craft and he lands battered on the cobblestones, dazed and recumbent, with his legs stretched across the sunken tracks of the Girard Avenue trolley. It all happens too quickly: before the trolley engineer can break his vehicle, before he even realizes there is a man in its path. Before Bill Deagler can look up and think a more measured thought than, “This trolley means to eat my shins.”

Alice does not yet know any of this, though she will remember it as the last and greatest tragedy of her life. She will live decades and decades longer, but from now on she will cease to catalog her misfortunes as they become daily and mundane. When next she sees her husband, a few hours from now, she will fill with horror at the sight of his knee stumps. This will be followed, soon after, by a deeper dread that forms at the realization that Bill will not die from his injury, but will live on as a cripple. She will pity him, but even more she will pity herself; in short time she will feel nothing but resentment for her husband, like a chronic weather-occasioned ache in her bones. What love she has will bleed out into the grooves of the trolley tracks, dissipate with the shanty smoke into the April sky. She will think, if never say, “When I agreed to love you, I assumed that you would always have legs. That you would be strong for me.” She will enter the workforce for the first time at the age of forty-two, find employment throughout the coming war as an elevator attendant. Her early son will drop out of high school to help support the family, her late daughter will grow into her own womanhood of tragedies, and the End of the World that the Blessed Virgin predicted will not come to pass: not in Alice’s lifetime, not in the way she believed it would.

But for now Alice, in the last ignorant hour of her long youth, finds comfort in the weight of her daughter, dense as flour and fragrant as fresh soda bread. The girl is undisturbed by the day’s necessary business: the fires, the grumbling crowd, the heavy scents of smoke and unhealed earth. Marion squints in the sunlight, wrinkles her nose, rests her head on Alice’s shoulder. Alice’s arm aches quietly; the ache has become a constant of her waking hours, one she barely notices anymore. It is the cost of keeping the girl up in the air, up off the soiling ground. Marion needs to be held. Marion never wants to be set down.

Simple, love. Love and fear. And hate.

And death. Any love story. Here’s a love story. This very moment, May, 1844, and the whole Kensington District has brought out the rifles for a religious war. There is murder in the streets, and beatings, lootings, church burnings. The Bible Riots, they’ll be called. The dispute is Protestant versus Catholic, because Philadelphia has become an Irish city overnight, and Prods versus Taigs is how the Irish like their violence.

There is noise and fire, still, though night has come. There is a trail of blood, leaked out from dragged boots, leading down an unnamed alley and across the road to the shadow of the Treaty Wood. The blood is Mulleady’s; he is shot in the gut from the big first fuck-off with the American Republican Association this afternoon. Burke has been with him since then, first at the Rectory til its roof caught fire, then on a series of cots in a series of kitchens, but at each haven they were sent away before too long as the violence pursued them like a starved rabble of cats. “Sorry, but you must leave,” said the women, “You can’t stay here, they’ll find you here,” and Burke called them cowards and worse things and dragged his friend along.

There are three of them now, in the dark quiet wood: Mulleady is laid propped against the wide trunk of an elm, a root stabbing into his back, though he isn’t complaining about discomfort or anything at this point, just exhaling dull moans, his face pale as the hidden moon. The clerk Gibbon sits against the next tree, pulling on his clay pipe, eyeing Mulleady, keeping his thoughts clad in smoke. Burke paces, hot from excitement, reliving the battle, such as it was, anxious to get back, clenching his fists and wishing they held cudgels.

“Like the dogs, to shoot first,” says Burke. “Heathens and dogs.”

“Always someone shoots first,” says Gibbon.

“Always them,” says Burke. “Protestant dogs. No civilization at all.”

It was Burke who shot first, in truth. The nativists had shown up in the square before St. Michael’s with a few clubs but mostly speech, and it wasn’t til the guns began firing that the fools seemed to realize the nest they’d marched into. Burke, who was neither political nor strong of his faith, saw Aloysius Carmody across the way, watching the nativists from the other side. Carmody was a fellow Catholic whom Burke had hated since Strabane, when a wife left the one for the other and then died in the winter, leaving them both mad, grieved men. In Philadelphia Burke acquired a pistol and a revolutionary sense of retribution, and that afternoon, seeing that Carmody had followed him across the wide ocean, he did not pause before firing and damning all the district to hell.

“The dogs,” says Burke and spits.

Mulleady wretches and coughs up blood, though his eyes barely move, like he doesn’t realize he’s doing it. Gibbon wipes the mess from his chin with a handkerchief, tutting around his pipe’s mouthpiece. “I don’t think Thomas can hear us anymore,” he says to Burke. “So I’ll not offend in saying he isn’t long for this side.”

Burke squats down beside Mulleady, smacks him lightly on the cheek. “No, you’re fine, boy,” he says. “Listen to me, Thomas. I shot that Carmody today. I saw him in the fight and I shot him like a feral hound. Smile at that. You’ll live and Carmody is dead.”

In this, too, Burke is wrong. He is an unschooled shot, and though it nicked Carmody in the arm and sent him to the ground to crawl away in panic, the bullet then struck and killed a tanner’s apprentice named George Shiffler, who will, in the days to follow, become a martyr of the nativist cause, the subject of hagiographic articles and broadsheet songs.

Mulleady’s eyes focus. He forces a breath over his vocal chords. “John,” he says, looking up at Burke, and at the trees above Burke. “Are we back in Glenmornan?”

“Glenmornan?” says Burke. “No. We’re in Philadelphia, still. Thomas, we’re in America.”

Mulleady sees the shifting branches of the elm. He has confused it with a great oak out in Martin Crimmin’s far pasture, where the brook turns away from the village and back to its home in the hills. Mulleady, too, had a wife whom he loved beneath the boughs of that wide tree, and who died one cold morning to sour an entire island and make it unbearable for him to stay. “It’s those unsatisfied that travel,” a sailor told him and Burke on the way over, and Mulleady thinks now of the pasture and the oak, of how the moss on its roots was the second softest thing in the world after Janie Hannagan, and how afterward they’d lay there and watch the sky through the fingers of the old tree, waiting for the moment when the darkening day would paint, for an instant, the leaves and the heavens the same indistinguishable gold. How close, he thinks, he was to satisfied.

“A shame,” says Mulleady, and then gives it up.

“Your man’s gone,” says Gibbon. He pulls Mulleady’s eyes closed, leaves tobacco soot on the lids like palm ashes. “Sorry, John.”

Burke makes a noise, an animal’s cry. He kicks the elm. He shouts, “I’ll kill ten men! I’ll kill a hundred men! A thousand!” He pulls his pistol from his belt and fires it up into the cloaking night.

The night holds.

Gibbon is not alarmed by the shot. It merely increases his fatigue, if that. “I think I’ll go home,” he says. “If it isn’t burned. Go home, too, John. Let this be the end.”

“I’ll kill every man of them!” says Burke, because those known to him are dead and the living seem all to be strangers. “Every man will know the love I feel!”

A love story. The same as this one, right now and forever, June, 1682. We’re in Shackamaxon: that’s what this place is, let us not forget that. Shackamaxon, where this whole sorry enterprise began. If America was born downtown, on Market Street, to applauses and shrill fifes and shallow, martial drums, then know that she was conceived right here a century earlier, on this patch of ground, between trees that were parents to these ones around us. This was the first brokered marriage of civilizations. This is where the Old and New came to exchange their vows before man and all the gods he believes in, where they swore not to murder each other in their sleep. That is, they swore to love one another.

It comes to us from so deep in our own history, from our own age of myths, reported by a people more interested in utopia than in fact, that who can know if ever such an event truly occurred. Picture it: no park, not yet, no casino or power station, and no street or city or commonwealth or nation: just a clearing by a river, a break in the trees that are so numerous there is barely a sunlit patch of ground to be seen for a thousand miles west. A hillock overlooking the wide river, quaint, tame, mild of landscape and weather. An ancient elm rising from sandy soil, a meeting stone beneath it. Two parties on either side, near enough in health and numbers that it is not clear whether one is mightier than the other. Two chiefs standing face to face. Peaceful men committed to a peaceable kingdom.

We can argue about what each man represents. What he believes, or wants, or means, or knows. Whether he lies, and if the lie is only to himself. But I hear bells that drown out any doubt, bird songs that make any past inconceivable; I feel a breeze off the river to stiffen any spine, to shake the greenery in emphasis that only the present matters, that the future will follow from this. Of course they make the promise. We all always make the promise. We believe it. We must.

And what promise?

That this time it will be different. That this time it will work. That this time everyone will get through it alive.

Monk stopped talking a took a swig of bourbon.

They were drinking in Penn Treaty Park, because it was the closest park they were allowed to drink in, and drinking in a park seemed somehow more wholesome than drinking in a bar on such a mild, sunny day.

What was that? asked Seamus.

What was what? said Monk.

That thing you were just saying. I came in halfway through, said Seamus.

Oh, said Monk. That was a love story.

How exactly was that a love story? asked Conn. At the beginning you were talking about me, but what was with the guy with his legs cut off? And then a riot, and then that thing about America?

Monk said, Love is bloody. Love is a pretext for blood. We kill what we love. Because we love it. We almost can’t help it.

So what, that’s supposed to put things into perspective for me? said Conn. Not for nothing, but that’s the least practical advice I’ve ever heard in my life.

We almost can’t help it, said Monk again.

And I do know what I want, Dr. Nobody-Asked-You, said Conn. Dr. Jumps-To-His-Own-Fucking-Conclusions.

But, a little bit, we can help it, said Monk.

Hey, no offense, Monk, said Conn, but go fuck yourself.

Anya’s not going to work for an hour, said Hector, consulting his watch. And I’m not going home til then. He opened another beer.

Seamus threw a can at Monk’s head. Well then, what else you got?

Michael Deagler lives in Philadelphia. His fiction is featured or forthcoming in Glimmer Train, B O D Y, The Yalobusha Review, and elsewhere.

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