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The Kings of Gowanus

Rae Meadows, 2019 BLR Fiction Prize Winner

Big Jim Sullivan was born in America, in Darby’s Patch, a squatter’s camp of dirt-floored, single-room shanties along the canal where hogs roamed the serpentine alleyways. When it rained, the canal flooded the slum. 

“Stood on chairs,” he’d told his son Jimmy, “until the floor dried out.”

His parents had come from Derrymore in County Kerry, a village tucked between the green velvet Slieve Mish Mountains and the ocean. His father had been a fisherman. But in America, he peddled “fresh country milk” to the genteel in Brooklyn Heights from his sickly cow that ate from slop heaps and drank swill from a nearby distillery. 

“When the city came, my mum stood in the doorway with an axe,” Big Jim had laughed. “They burned the house down around her.”

Jimmy took a shallow breath through his mouth as he stepped from the sagging cottage, the door clacking against its broken frame behind him. If the city wanted to burn down their house, he might go ahead and let them do it. 

Outside the air was already hot and rank, thick with summer stink. He spent his days, like most boys in the neighborhood, walking around, looking to get something for nothing. But today was fight day. He and Nell had work to do.

At the canal, Jimmy saw that the ballooned carcass of a dog had moved only a few yards since yesterday. Now it floated below the bridge in stagnant water mucked with oily brown and yellow ooze, riddled with tin cans, melon rinds, toilet paper. Sewage poured in from mains along the canal. When it rained, the putrid overflow rimmed the streets and emptied into basements. You were born into the smell, his father had told him, carried it on you even when you no longer noticed it. Slaughterhouse blood and coal tar and formaldehyde and fertilizer and dead animals and hydrochloric acid and lead—sludge ten feet deep beneath a river of shit.

Jimmy watched the dog, legs stiff, belly distended, mouth agape, almost smiling, its long gray tongue thick and lolling to the side. He didn’t recognize it—strays were everywhere—but he was sorry anyway. Probably jumped in after a gull or a stick thrown too far. Or maybe someone tossed the mutt in for fun. See how long it could swim before it gave out. 

“You go in, you ain’t coming out,” Dundee said from the tower. Dundee was the keeper of bridge, retracting it twice a day for boats. He sat up there on his perch all day, the top of his head red and crisp from the sun.

“I dare you,” Jimmy called up. 

Dundee laughed slowly, his eyes loose in their sockets. He was drunk. Barge captains bribed him with liquor to let them through during off-hours. He scratched the greasy hair that remained around his ears and settled his shoulder blades on the back of his seat. “Devil’s in there,” he said.

Jimmy waved him off. He pitched a piece of brick at the dead dog, sending it bobbing and spinning into the milky scum along the bank. 

Nell was late. Jimmy bounced in his shoes, his feet slick through holey socks. 

His sister was thirteen and flat as a slab, hair cut high and jagged on her neck. She had no interest in being a girl, wore short pants and a work shirt, and kids let it go because her eyes glittered a cold pale green and she kept a razor blade in her newsboy cap. When John McTiernan tried to get his hand down her pants he ended up with a slash from eye to mouth. 

Jimmy spotted her walking past the coal yard, her arms more muscled than his own in a shirt with the sleeves cut off. 

“Where’ve you been?” Jimmy punched her hard in the arm.

Nell raised her fist quick to his face but let it drop. “Cafferty,” she said. 

All the kids had to run from that old pervert at one time or another. “You?” he asked.

“No, the Flannery boy. Had him in the shed.” Nell fingered the brim of her cap, as was habit, to make sure the blade was still there.

“You smell worse than the canal,” he said.

“Keeps the eejits away.”

He nodded toward the paper bag in her hand. “You got it?” he asked. 

Nell squinted into the sun reflecting off the water but didn’t answer. Jimmy never asked how she procured liquor. He knew it required something horrid of her. 

It had always been Jimmy and Nell, just a year apart. They had two little brothers and a baby sister, pink and snively, all farmed out to fat Mrs. Jamison who kept a zoo of them behind dirty lace curtains. Their mother was brittle, her fingers gnarled from threading bobbins at the mill. Their father was a drunk who sporadically lurched home to eat something and then screw his wife. But Jimmy and Nell knew something else about him. Big Jim Sullivan had the fists of a giant and, when he was sober, he could take anyone. The whiskey was a bribe they would offer for after, make him walk around, sober up, follow it like a carrot on a stick.

The men couldn’t fight the bosses or the government or the cops, so they fought each other, knuckle to bone. The reason was almost always minor—an insult, a few cents short, eyes at another’s wife—or made up altogether. Today was a grudge match, Big Jim and Sal Pesce, because one was Irish and one was Italian, reason enough.

“I get ten if he wins,” Nell said.

“If he loses?”

She shrugged. 

They told each other it was for the money, pretended anyway, but Jimmy willed his father to win for memories that glowed like a hearth within him. He kept them tucked away even from Nell. Like when he was six and hot with fever and his father carried him like a baby in his arms, Jimmy’s face next to that big chest. Safe, safe. Or when he found his father sitting on the front stoop in the winter dark, and he told Jimmy that the halo around the moon meant it would snow. The next day, as the snow came down, Jimmy felt like his father had trusted him with the universe. 

The thrown chairs, their mother’s black eyes, the puke and piss, his red bloated face that no longer had any handsome in it—“Stop looking at me,” he would spit, his whiskey-tinged sweat dampening a face that careened between contempt and shame—Jimmy could tell himself that this was not the real Jim Sullivan. “He’s an asshole, Jimmy,” Nell would say. “Don’t be a goop.” 

Nell crossed the bridge and flipped the finger at Dundee, who smiled and closed his eyes toward the sun. “I’ll be watching from here,” he said.

Jimmy wiped the sweat from his lip with the heel of his palm and followed his sister. They walked by the weedy lot crusted with coal dust along the left bank of the canal where the fight would take place. A boy held up a rat by its tail and swung it toward his friend who tried to bat it with a broom handle. The Trolley Dodgers played in Washington Park, but no one had the twenty-five cents for bleacher seats. Sometimes kids would line up along the wall outside just to hear the sound of a bat hitting a ball. 

“If he wins, maybe we could go to a game,” Jimmy said. The thought so delighted him, he knew his voice had given away his hopefulness, his foolishness. Nell looked back at him and shook her head, her eyes rolled up. She kept walking, holding up the paper sack as a reminder. 

Jimmy wondered if Nell had any memories, good ones she held close. But he also knew how much cruddier it was for her, how their mother scorned her for who she was, even managed to blame her for Big Jim’s tirades. Nell had been born pretty—the one good thing for a girl—but she had done all she could to be somebody else. Her cleverness, her toughness, made it worse. “He can’t stand to look at you,” her mother would say. Nell sometimes did not come home at night. 

It was not yet noon but the day’s heat had baked the road dry. Manure dust rose as they walked. Jimmy breathed through his mouth. 

“You hear about Julia Foy?” Nell asked.

Jimmy would sometimes imagine putting his hands up the front of Julia Foy’s dress. She liked to tease him, call him Little Jimmy, even though she was only fifteen. Her eyes, though. A blue so fragile they were almost gray. That black braid she tossed around like a whip. He’d watch her walk past the window, coming home from the mill with a little skip, like she was on her way to a dance. “What about her?” he asked.

“Got her hand caught. Three fingers ripped clear off.”

No, no, he thought. Smooth pink nubs where her slim fingers used to be. Could he even hold her hand now? A feeling of tenderness for her settled on him like dew. Yes, he could. He did not cry, and for that he was thankful. “Right or left?’

“Right, probably. Threading.”

He tried to picture if Julia could still be pretty with her fingerless hand.

The stench lifted some as they moved away from the canal, up out of the big ditch of the neighborhood, and caught a breeze sweeping across from the Slope. Hoyt Street was quieter, though the houses still meager and ill kept. It was early enough that the gangs of boys had not yet gathered in the shadows. A mongrel without a tail crouched and whined as they passed. Nell pulled out a hunk of sausage wrapped in newspaper from her pocket. She took a bite and handed it to Jimmy who ate the rest. They came to a small collection of brick row houses on an unpaved block tucked behind the concrete company. Billy’s was run out of one of the basements, more flophouse than bar, purveyor of cheap moonshine that smelled like turpentine.

Jimmy and Nell had been here before, sent by their mother to collect Big Jim in the days when she still bothered to know where he was. A palpable earthen cool rose up as they descended the steps into the darkness. It took a moment for Jimmy’s eyes to adjust. Lumps became men slumped against the wall. 

Behind the bar Billy wiped out a glass with a dirty rag. He was a small man but his teeth were big and white and they seemed to glow in the dingy light. He flicked his eyes to Jimmy and Nell.

“There a fight on?” he asked, his voice unhurried, slinking like a cat.

Billy was wily, but Nell was a hustler too. “Want to put something on it?” she asked.

Billy smiled with half his mouth. “Whyn’t we work it out in the other room?”

There was this turn so often now with Nell, when something regular would become something dirty, some proposition Jimmy didn’t fully understand. They lived in two different worlds, hers full of trapdoors and doublespeak. He felt the prickle of sweat under his arms. Nell took off her cap and twirled it on her finger. If she was scared, she was good at hiding it. She’d learned long ago that fear was the worst kind of weakness—she would show nothing.

“He here?” Jimmy asked. He tried to sound gruff but he had to clear his throat.

Billy bit his bottom lip with those teeth and chuckled. “Out back.”

The yard was hot and dusty. Rusty springs and crumpled newspapers and moldering bricks lay in a heap against the wooden fence. Laundry like flags crisscrossed above them. They didn’t see him at first, and then Nell spotted his boots. He was wedged behind the garbage, drinking spirits from a tomato can, his black hair in a lank swoop across his forehead, his middle a large mound.

Jimmy stood where he was, unable to move toward the wasted man who could barely hold his head up. Nell walked over and squatted beside him.

“Daddy?” Her voice was so small and feathery, so unlike her usual voice, Jimmy was startled. It was eerie, like she had summoned her long-ago self. Nell was like a hoar-frosted window, glittery, beautiful even, but impossible to see into.

Big Jim tried to lift his eyelids higher. “It’s my Nellie girl,” he said, hefting his back upright against the fence. He cuffed her cheek too hard with his paw of a hand and knocked her sideways into the rubble.  She glanced at the blood on her scraped palms with the slightest of smiles, but didn’t bother wiping it off. 

Jimmy scowled and stepped forward. He stood in front of his father, his jaw set. “You’re fighting,” he said.

Big Jim groaned and keeled to the side, his hand over his face. His knuckles were scarred purple, the skin cracked. He rose to his elbow and tossed the now-empty can onto the garbage heap. “Adieu the Hills of Kerry I ne’er will see no more,” he sang. “Oh why did I leave my home, oh why did I cross the sea?”

“You ain’t never even been there,” Nell said. 

Her father looked at her, tried to steady his gaze. “What you got in the bag there, Nellie?” he asked.

“If you win,” she said. She wagged the bottle in her fist above him then snatched it back. 

Jimmy bit his cheek until his teeth cut through. His sister’s nerve astounded him sometimes. 

“Bitch,” her father said. But he was so drunk it had little bite. Big Jim fell twice before they could yank him to his feet. 

Block by block they walked the neighborhood, resting in patches of shade, dunking Big Jim’s head in the trough behind the grocery, walking again. Mrs. Mahoney knew about the fight and gave in to Jimmy and Nell’s pleas to feed him. They sat on stacked lettuce crates as their father filled his cavernous mouth with liver and onions. Jimmy watched his father turning back into himself. His cheeks pink, the red clearing from his eyes. Thick fingers loosening, shiny with grease.

“Pesce’s not so much,” Big Jim said. 

“He took out Arthur Murphy not four weeks ago,” Jimmy said. 

Nell stabbed an elbow in his side. “You’ll take him,” she said to her father. “He’s weak in the brain.”

“Your mother coming?”

“Working,” Jimmy said. His father nodded, then rubbed his forehead, disappointed. 

“The Foy girl got her hand chopped off,” Nell said.

“Just a couple fingers. You said it was just fingers,” Jimmy pleaded. Not the whole hand, he thought, please. 

“Don’t matter what it is. Ruins her,” their father said. 

Jimmy pretended to mess with his shoelace to hide his face. Big Jim sucked down a glass of beer. They allowed him that. He flexed his meaty fingers then pulled them into fists. He yawned like a bear out of hibernation, eyes closed, mouth wide and contorted before he snapped it shut.

“Falks paying?” he asked. 

Wendell Falks owned Carroll Gas. To keep the unions out, he doled out gifts to the Irish. A ham here, a woodstove there. A hundred dollars when the Kellys lost a baby to typhus. Fifty when Connolly took out the Italian padrone who he caught with his wife. 

“They say,” Nell said. 

“We’ll celebrate,” Big Jim said. “A new dress for your mother.” 

Jimmy nodded, knowing, like the baseball game, that it would never happen, but not letting himself fully know it. 

“Can’t wear anything nice to the mill,” Nell said. 

Big Jim’s jaw worked and clenched. He could have slapped Nell to the ground, but he let her barb pass. Jimmy would never have risked their father’s anger, but Nell had a sense of things that he didn’t. 

“How do you feel?” Jimmy asked.

Big Jim heaved air into his massive lungs. “Don’t matter,” he said. 

Nell hid the bottle behind a loose brick.

When they arrived at the fight, men were milling about already, a ring of them around the lot at the edge of the frothing canal. Women were there too, weary brows, hard eyes, children ducking in and out of their dirty skirts. The crew from Butchtown, swarthy Italian asphalt layers, had walked here under the afternoon sun and now dumped buckets of water over their heads. It took Jimmy a moment to see Pesce, who squatted against the canal pilings. He looked like the others, but when he stood, Jimmy grabbed Nell’s arm. The man was an oil tank.

She swatted his hand away. “It’s here that matters,” Nell said, jabbing her temple. 

This fight, like all of them, would be a cross between an Irish Stand Down and a street fight. Knockout or death. Rules were few and flimsy—you couldn’t choke or kick but you could fishhook a mouth or dig an eye. Big Jim took off his shirt. A roll of white belly flesh hung over his pants. Pesce was barrel-chested, and his immense arms hung low.

They were nudged toward each other without ceremony. Big Jim caught Pesce’s opening blow and beat it away with his wrist. Pesce parried Big Jim’s next strike. 

“Elbows in!” yelled Nell. 

Big Jim scraped the edge of his boot quick and hard against Pesce’s shin, and stomped his instep. Pesce cried out and spun away, hopping some on his good foot.

The fuse had been lit. The crowd crackled, drawing in closer.

On the other side of the fight Jimmy caught sight of Julia Foy, her black braid snaked over her shoulder, and she smiled at him, that dimpled, teasing smile that hooked him in the gut. He looked down and saw her hand like a club, ending in a gauze-mummied stump. His mouth dropped open and he looked up at her again and she saw that he had seen and he didn’t know if he was going to cry or be sick. He felt his throat burn, bile inching up. She held her mangled hand up, as if to wave.

Jimmy jerked his eyes back to the fight just as Pesce rushed forward to attack, but Big Jim sprang quickly to his right foot and bent down, tripping Pesce with his left. The humiliation gave wings to the Italian who kipped to his feet and popped Big Jim’s nose, blood spattering the onlookers, a red constellation on Jimmy’s sleeve.

Jimmy could see his father’s eyes aswirl in rage, his nose now flattened and crooked, blood running down his chin. Something had busted open in Jimmy, too. He saw it everywhere now, the rage beating in the faces of those around him. And he was part of it too. His heart pummeled his ribs with the same rage that ran through them all like a river.

The fighters traded body blows, Pesce landing his fist in big Jim’s ribs, Big Jim punching Pesce square in the heart. Grunts and groans and the slapping, sticky sound of skin against skin. His father stumbled, fatigue weighing his arms. 

“Kill him!” Nell yelled.

Jimmy breathed hard, filled with the madness of it, the rusty tang of blood, the roar in his ears. He glanced back across at Julia Foy and felt only pity, a new sense of power in his heart.

“The clinch,” Nell said. 

And then Jimmy saw it too, the Italian moving in close. The men were lumbering beasts, hanging on each other, almost hugging. Jimmy saw Pesce’s hand slightly open, his thumb out. He had not imagined his father could lose. But now he saw a bottomless black hole in place of his father’s eye, his body felled, a cold leaden weight. He thought of Samson, eyes gouged out and shackled by the Philistines. 

“Eyes!” Jimmy yelled.

But his father somehow had gotten his left hand on the back of Pesce’s head, and he pulled it down with a jerk and uppercut him with his right. It was a sledgehammer to the face, the crack of bone like a snapped board. Pesce reeled. Nell jumped up and down, the cords in her neck pulled tight, her eyes like suns. 

Everything around Jimmy went white and quiet and he saw what winning could mean—his father, the victor, returned. His mother’s hands soft, her eyes merry. All of them together again around the rickety wooden table, a heaping bowl of lamb stew. Laughing. The way it never had been. And the crowd screamed back in, the fight still going, his father’s face like bits of clay pushed together.

Pesce dug for whatever was left in him and went for a head butt, a bull ram to the chest, almost knocking Big Jim into the canal. But after, Pesce could barely stand, staggering backward, his eyes swollen shut. Big Jim launched a sickening straight right to the chin that sent the Italian crumpled to the ground, two bloody teeth a foot away in the dirt. 

Big Jim Sullivan had won. For all of them. Jimmy felt sparks shoot through his body, pride he didn’t know possible. Life can change, he wanted to shout to his sister.  

But she was gone, off to collect her money. 

Paddy Kerrigan lifted Jimmy onto his shoulders and he was Big Jim’s son above the frenzied crowd, hot and bright and soaring. He closed his eyes and imagined running along the edge of the canal all the way to the bay where the air was fresh and salty, and then diving in, being pulled by something swift and mighty, and the deafening rush of water rinsing him clean as he streaked out beyond Red Hook, all the way into the cold blue sea.

When he opened his eyes, the Italians were gone, and Jimmy didn’t know if Pesce was alive or dead. His father was in a bloody heap, someone pouring beer down his gullet. The men around him were already shaping their stories, eyes shining, the myth growing even before the blood was dry. I was there! His fists were the size of boulders! Jimmy felt the moment passing even as he tried to slow it down. Paddy Kerrigan set Jimmy back down in the dirt and he was just a boy again. The barges lined up at the bridge, orange in the late-day sun. Dundee sat in his tower, waiting for the mill bell, which would signal 4:30, and he would let them through. 

Jimmy knew he would never feel this way, this good, again. For a moment he imagined the worst—Nell working the corners, his drunk father falling into the canal, his mother coughing up blood from cotton-clogged lungs, her fingers curled into claws that could no longer hold a cup of tea—but then he looked straight at the sun and tried not to feel anything at all. 

Jimmy and Nell sat in the dark on the edge of the bridge, their feet dangling over water they could not see, and passed the whiskey bottle between them. The moon looked like it had been cut from wax paper, big and lopsided. Dundee had gone home. 

“It’s just one finger,” Nell said. “She’ll heal up good enough.”

He imagined Julia Foy in the starlight, her braid roped in his hand. She wouldn’t call him Little Jimmy anymore. She would be grateful.

He looked down into the blackness, a lapping sound as the languid water hit the posts of the bridge. He felt the muscles in his hands contract, the bones unbroken. He knew there would come a day when he would fight. He held his breath and tried to fool himself into believing the water below him was cool and clear, but he couldn’t. He wondered if the dog was still down there. 

Maybe, mercifully, it had been dragged out to sea.