Authors: John Florio
Published 2013 by Seventh Street Booksâ¢, an imprint of Prometheus Books
Sugar Pop Moon
. Copyright Â© 2013 by John Florio. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, digital, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or conveyed via the Internet or a website without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Cover image Â© Bernice Abbott,
Changing New York
Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art,
Print and Photographs, the New York Public Library,
Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations
Cover design by Nicole Sommer-Lecht
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Pending
Florio, John, 1960-
Sugar pop moon : a Jersey Leo novel / John Florio.
ISBN 978-1-61614-795-2 (pbk.)
ISBN 978-1-61614-796-9 (ebook)
1. BartendersâFiction. 2. ProhibitionâFiction. 3. Distilling, IllicitâFiction. I. Title.
Printed in the United States of America
For the outsiders
Nobody forgets running into an albino. At least that's what Jimmy McCullough said the day he put me to work at the Pour House. He looked me straight in the eye and told me a four-eyed geezer could spot a bleached coon like me from a mile away.
“Stick to misdemeanors,” he said. “Because you're sure as hell gonna get busted.”
I've since found out he was right.
I'm Jersey Leo, a walking cup of coffee with a splash too much milk, a steaming mug of cocoa with one too many marshmallows, a sideshow attraction in a circus that rolled into town when Prohibition started eleven years ago.
Business at the Pour House is boomingâthe bar is jammed and it's not even six o'clock. All the regulars are here because they've got nowhere else to go: New York City is trudging its way through an afternoon snowstorm, not to mention a yearlong blizzard of pink slips.
The Pour House is fairly large; it takes up a doublewide brick row house at 323 West Fifty-Third Street. The building stands out from the blocks of decaying tenements and aborted dreams known as Hell's Kitchen. It has its own walkway and stoop, not to mention a bouncer waiting to pat you down right inside the door. A dining room fills the front half of the place and holds eight polished mahogany tables. A pair of pocket doors separates it from the barroom, a square space with an L-shaped bar running across the back and right walls. It's a far cry from a fancy nightclub, but the Pour House is friendly, familiar, and always open. Most of our customers are regularsâthe place has them hooked by their wallets, their tongues, and their souls.
Me, I'm here for a different reason. Whether or not I like Jimmy doesn't matter. The classifieds are awfully thin nowadays and I'm pulling in thirty-five bucks a week. I haven't checked but I'm fairly certain there aren't a lot of want ads for a chalk-white albino with yellow hair and no real skills to speak of.
I'm pouring shots of moonshine behind the bar when Larch walks through the front door. He has one of those foreheads that wrinkles at the top of his nose and leaves him with a puzzled look on his face, kind of like a kid leaving his first algebra class. But Larch isn't a mathematicianâhe's a cop. He spends his day behind the wheel of a squad car, raiding speakeasies like this one. It just so happens that he likes me and loves rye, so, as far as he's concerned, the Pour House is above the law.
The tip of Larch's nose is as red as a radish and the brim of his fedora is hidden under a dusting of fresh snow. A busty woman with blood-red lipstick and a Clara Bow bob holds his elbow. She's no movie star, but for a barfly like Larch, she's not bad, either. I've never seen Larch's wife and I'm sure that's still the case.
Diego is working the door. He's new to the place but he can sniff Larch's badge. He lets Larch in without patting him down.
“Hey, Snowball,” Larch calls out. Everybody in the place knows me as Snowball and there's simply no undoing it. “We're hungry and we're thirsty,” he says. His words are gobbled up by the sound of singing voices and clinking glasses at the bar.
Larch and his date stop in the dining room and sit down at a table for four. It wouldn't matter if they took the table for eight, because the entire room is empty. Everybody is crowded at the bar, waiting for me to take their money and splash a fleeting moment of happiness into their glasses.
“Gimme a second,” I yell to Larch, knowing he isn't here to say hello but to enjoy a free mealâalong with some whiskey to wash it down. I don't mind covering Larch, but Jimmy hates when he thinks anybody is taking advantage of him, even if it's a steady customer who can land his ass in jail.
“It gets my goat when a freeloader like Larch comes in here,” Jimmy told me the first day I showed up for work. “He thinks it's easy to run this place, but I've got to grease palms, kiss butt, and bang heads just to keep it open.” Jimmy sounds like a businessman, but the only business he really understands is the kind nobody talks about.
The good news is that Jimmy's not here tonight. I'm in charge and I'll keep Larch and the rest of the force smiling until he gets back on Wednesday. I'll put a cap on it, though. I can't afford to cross Jimmy again. He caught me pouring freebies for a street cop a couple of weeks ago and docked me two weeks' pay. Next time I may not be so lucky.
I walk over to Santi. He's squatting on one knee behind the bar, chipping down a block of ice with a screwdriver. He's wearing a white kitchen apron, his hair is slicked straight back, and clusters of tiny pimples dot his forehead. Santi once told me he wished he were white and not Spanish, but I set him straight. In my book he's one lucky Joe. He can spend the day walking through Hell's Kitchen, letting the sun toast his olive skin. I'd gladly take on any skin colorâbrown, white, yellow, purpleâif those rays would stop feeling like a sizzling waffle iron. Anything beats being a nation of one, which is what I am.
Santi looks up at me, his screwdriver poised in midair. “Larch is thirsty,” I tell him.
“Of course he is,” he says. “It's free.”
I tell him to keep Larch happy.
“I'll bring him the sugar pop moon,” he says.
We just got the stuff this morning and I can't wait to try it out. This isn't amateur street moonshine. I won't serve that swillâit'll burn a hole right through your gut.
Santi hustles off to the basement.
“And bring him two glasses,” I shout out to him.
Santi is seventeen, six years younger than I am. I met him because his father, Old Man Santiago, owns the Hy-Hat, a social club up in Harlem where I spend most of my off-hours. Santi used to follow me around the club like a puppy on an invisible leash. When I found out his old man was broke, I got the kid a job bussing tables here at the Pour House. I hope the money doesn't hook him. He's too smart to spend the rest of his days working for the likes of Jimmy.
Larch is sitting at the table next to the Christmas tree, which some wiseass has decorated with a pair of bloomers. I get Diego to take my place behind the bar while I walk over to Larch and his lady friend. She takes a long look at my kinky hair and red-rimmed green eyes. Then she stares at the pink blotches that stain my skin. A confused look comes over her face. To her I'm nothing but a nigger who's been dipped in bleach.
“Jersey,” I say, giving her my birth name. I'd tell her that I got the name because my father won the state boxing championship on the other side of the Hudson, but she probably wouldn't believe me. I'm hardly the stuff of heavyweights. I stand almost six feet tall but weigh barely a buck sixty-five, most of the weight coming from a soft midsection and a pair of broad, bony shoulders. Luckily, my suit hangs loosely on my frame, as if it were draping a wire mannequin at Gimbels.
“Everybody calls me Snowball,” I say, figuring Larch has mentioned me before.
A glint of recognition flashes in her eyes. “Oh, Snowball,” she says. I extend my hand to her but I can see she doesn't want to touch it. I pretend not to notice.
“How's it going, Larch?” I ask. “Anything I should know about?”
“Nah, you're clean,” he says.
I'm sure he feels powerful in front of his date, but the truth is that a pass from Larch wouldn't mean a thing if the Feds ever came down on me. The Feds are much tougherâand way more expensiveâthan a beat cop in Hell's Kitchen.
“There's a new chef downstairs,” I say. Larch knows the kitchen is in the basement; we've gone down there once or twice for late-night snacks after the chef has gone home. “Try the steak.”
“Sounds good,” he says, smiling. I'm standing and waiting, but I can't take his order because Clara Bow is picking through the menu as if it's a special edition of the
Santi steps out of the bar crowd with two glasses in his left hand and a bottle of moonshine in his right. The glasses are already iced up and he puts them on the table.
“A splash of recreation for the officer,” he announces as he pours two fingers into each glass.
The kid's got a brainâhe's the chess champion at the Hy-Hatâbut every once in a while he'll spit out a sentence that'll make your head spin.
He slides Larch a shot of shine. “Enjoy the fortitude.”
Larch smiles before slugging down the moon. It barely hits his tongue when his lips pucker and his face twists. He spits the booze onto the white tablecloth.
“What the hell is this? Piss?”
“That's sugar pop moon,” Santi says. He couldn't sound more offended if he'd distilled it himself.
I pick up Clara Bow's glass and sip the shine. It's awful. As much as I want to spit it out, I swirl it over my taste buds and hold it for a few seconds. It could be iodine mixed with sugar water. Whatever it is, it's not the real thingâand hack moonshine could kill somebody.
I spit it back into her glass.
“Please tell me this isn't the moon from Philly,” I say to Santi. I just bought eighty cases of the stuff.
“That's it, that's the sugar pop moon,” Santi says, staring at the bottle. I'm sure he's running the odds on whether I got taken. I already know the answer.
Santi's scared for me. I just spent $4,800 of Jimmy's money on this shine, and if it's all cow piss, I'm in deep trouble. Jimmy's still on me for throwing the boys at the precinct free cases of rye, so he'll surely think I scammed him by switching suppliers and pocketing the extra cash. Jimmy doesn't like it when his boys get cute. Ask Satch Jenkins. He used to bus tables here at the Pour House and he took Jimmy for a single case of whiskey. The poor slob disappearedâthen resurfaced two weeks later selling newspapers in Times Square, unable to shout “Extra!” because Jimmy had taken out his tongue.