Ruffly Like Christmastime

The first time I saw Phil he was wearing a green jacket and a bowtie, and he was putting his big hands all over the people lined up at the bar at the Royal. Beads of sweat shook down off his forehead. The only empty stool was next to me.

“Two whiskeys,” he said to the bartender and sat down. He patted his forehead with a white handkerchief. “You drink whiskey,” he said.

“Friend or foe?” I asked him.

“Ha!” He clapped me on the shoulder with a big hand. The hand was damp.

“Look,” he said, suddenly serious, “these people are vipers. Get out now while you can.”

The drinks came and he took one off the bar with his fingers, like an actor. He paused, winked at me, and went back down the bar.

Later that night I saw him parading in the street with a black duster in his hands, tempting passing cars. Between his clenched teeth was a wilted flower. Not a rose.

“Olé!” shouted the crowd on the sidewalk.


I had found a way to go broke out in the suburbs. Construction was slowing down and I didn’t know what to do with my girlfriend’s kids. It was after she threw me out that I decided to go to grad school.

The 32 bus ran between campus and the Royal and cost $1.50 each way. The bar was shaped like a horseshoe and newspapers from the last World Series were tacked to the walls. There were no windows and the jukebox was sad in the daytime and anxious at night.

Everyone already seemed to know one another, and I’d sit with them in booths with plastic pitchers, arguing over nothing and shredding bar napkins. Every so often one of us would get up to do coke in the women’s bathroom because it had a lock on the door.

I started to see Phil there all the time, drinking between the classes he taught at the university or avoiding his wife.

“You’re kidding,” was what I said to him when he told me he was married. With kids. Then I went to the bathroom and locked the door. I blew two good lines off the back of the toilet and looked at myself in the mirror. “OK,” I said.  It was midnight. My hand was on Phil’s shoulder.

“OK,” I said. “So what is it then?”

“What?” he said to me.

“The whole thing. I want to know about all of it.”

“What the fuck,” Phil said, and turned away.

I quit going to classes and started to live off the student loans. It felt like I had retired from something, but I didn’t know then what it was.


On a wet afternoon with no sun I walked in to the Royal to find somebody to go across town for coke. The place was empty except for Phil, sitting at the bar in a tweed suit, grading papers.

Phil was bent low over the papers and he slashed at them with a red pen. I walked over and he mumbled something, then he made a mark that ripped the page. He slammed his hand down on the bar.

“Pagination!” he shouted.

“Phil,” I said.

“Go away, son,” he batted at the air with his hand. I asked the bartender to bring him a whiskey.

“Look,” I started, “it’s about-”

“I know precisely what it’s about and it’s not going to happen.” Phil pushed the essay away and grabbed for another.

“We’ve got to go to Rob’s,” I said.

“We can’t go to Rob’s,” he said. His shot came.

“We can go to Rob’s,” I said. I was sweating and had stuck my hands into my armpits. “I can’t get in without you.”

Phil picked up the shot glass without looking at me and drank the whiskey down in a long sip. He looked across the empty bar.

“Rob is dead,” he announced.

“Bullshit.” I waved for another whiskey. Talking to Phil could be difficult. He wore rings on his fingers. “How do you know Rob is dead?”

“Because he won’t answer my calls.” I looked at Phil. He sat back into the chair. He pulled on his long tie and looked again at the far wall. “You should understand,” he said, “that when he and I last spoke, Rob mentioned his daughter.”

“When did you talk to him last?” I tried to find his eyes.

“Yesterday,” Phil said. Another shot came. I let him drink it.

I sat back in the chair and looked at the grime hanging from the holes in the drop ceiling. Everything was impossible.

“Hey listen,” Phil chirped.  His little eyes blinked behind his glasses and he smiled and spread his thick arms over the papers that lay in a mess across the bar.

“You know what these freshmen comp kids really need? You know what would keep them in line?”

“I don’t, Phil.”



“It’s leadership that’s lacking with today’s generation. A healthy sense of fear. The edicts of civilization.  So forth.”


“Sodomy, is what I’m proposing.”


“A good, deep dicking. Every last one of these kids. Even the ugly ones. I mean look at this utter foolishness,” and he pulled a paper at random from the pile, holding it in the air between his fingers like it was diseased.

I sat up straight and just admitted it: “I’ve got money.”

Phil put the paper back on the bar and squinted at me. Then his hands moved to all of his papers. He lifted them off the bar and slipped the papers, one-by-one, into his leather bag. Then he stood up.

“In that case,” he announced, “we should take a cab.” As he stepped around his chair he leaned in close, so the bartender couldn’t hear. “Hey,” he said, “I’m really sorry, but tell me your name again.”


We stood outside of a high brick and marble townhouse near Rittenhouse and peered into the lipstick cameras Rob had installed under the eaves of the building. We pushed Rob’s buzzer repeatedly. We jimmied the front door, or rather Phil jimmied the front door, keeping me at the bottom of the steps with waves of his other hand. The rings on his fingers gleamed like slugs.

He had begun to fidget on the cab ride over, pulling on his nose and stamping his feet until the cabbie finally told him to stop. I didn’t smile at all this but I was happy I could do him this favor. I had always suspected that we could be close.

The front door clicked open and I followed Phil into the vestibule of broken tiles.

We looked at the tin mailboxes and the dead-bolted door. Phil cleared his throat, and then began to pound his fist against the near wall.  He screamed Rob’s name until the veins stood out on the top of his bald head.

“What should we do?” I said. Phil’s eyes were rolling in his head and I backed myself into a corner. Suddenly he turned from me, and he ran out into the street.

Outside, Phil was trying to scale the brick wall. His small leather shoes were getting scuffed in his attempts to crawl into Rob’s first floor window. The sky was metal gray and no one passing on the street said anything to either of us.

“Push me up,” I said until he calmed down.

I stood on Phil’s shoulders and slid open the unlocked window. Rob had taped black plastic garbage bags over the windows with duct tape. I pushed my hands deep into the black plastic and leaned forward until I tore it all from the walls and fell into the apartment.

The place was small and dank, and the smell was like a living thing.  A mattress sat in the top of a raw wooden loft pushed against the opposite wall. Underneath the loft Rob was sitting on a futon. His head was leaning way back against the wall behind him. The laptop on the desk was surrounded by half-drunk bottles of Diet Pepsi. Clothes were on the floor. The spot lamps around the room glared on a strip of marble, a CD case, a Japanese letter-opener. Phil was trying to jump into the open window.

“Is he dead?” he kept saying.

“I’ll open up the front,” I called out, then did so.


Phil was concerned about Rob because of Rob’s little girl. Rob had gone through a divorce last year and lost custody of his daughter. Phil had twin girls of his own and got sentimental about them in public. It was nothing for him to cry at the bar and pull old pictures out of his wallet.

He had offered Rob a job at a small newspaper in Cape May but Rob preferred selling cocaine.  Now he sat on the futon.  I went into the kitchen.

It was small and the smell had collected in it. I held my breath and moved around plates of half-eaten food that sat in stacks on the counter. After a bit I found a clean glass and poured myself some orange juice. Phil was still in the den, on his knees in front of Rob. His black duster pooled around him on the floor. He was touching Rob’s hands. I asked Phil if he wanted any orange juice. He said yes.

The computer screen looked out onto the black and white street from the cameras under the eaves out front. I’d seen Rob sit all night at the computer buzzing in his customers. They came in packs. Blonde students with big watery faces and Asian widows with Louis Vuitton bags and dyed hair. Rob played a lot of Jimmy Buffett. I think he was from Maryland. No one listened to anyone else. Laughter erupted and choked on itself. Little white chunks covered every tabletop, every book, every CD case. Veined hands and doll eyes and bloody noses, all night long.

On Rob’s lap was a picture of a little girl. She was small and blonde and sitting on a bicycle. It was a nice way for daughters to look. Phil came back from the kitchen.

“Stop that!” he said to me. I put the picture back on the futon. Phil was holding the two-foot long piece of red marble. It was a large countertop sample, as if Rob had been planning to redo his kitchen.

“What’s that?” I pointed at the marble.

Phil tossed me a baggie of coke. “It’s a racetrack.”


I didn’t have a ten so I went back outside and ran a block until I found a convenience store to make change. Normal people passed me on the street.

I threw the Snapple I’d bought into the garbage and rubbed my fingers on the ten in my pocket until I was back in the apartment. I still believe to this day that of all the founding fathers, you’d want Alexander Hamilton next to you if you had a large amount of cocaine on hand. Look at his forehead.

We opened up the windows and turned on the portable fan and then we dug through the closets and drawers to get the baggies of coke and then we made a big pile of the stuff on the coffee table. Phil took off his duster and got on his knees in front of the table.  He opened his wallet and pulled out a teacher ID and a credit card. He placed them beside one another on the table, then he folded his wallet back into his jacket and shook out his hands, jangling his watch and bracelets.

He picked up the cards and sunk them into the large white pile and pulled out puffy little dunes. The cards in his hands divided the puffs into smaller dunes, halved them and then halved them again.  And one more time.  And halved again.  It wasn’t like sand and it wasn’t like snow.

But then the cards chopped through it all once and then twice and then this was kneaded back together and this divided again. Now Phil sat back and looked at it, breathing slowly. He ran the edges of the cards together like knives and he bent close to the table. He pulled four long diagonal lines from the edge of each pile with the edge of the credit card. It looked like the stuff was coming through the table. Like he was cutting open the wood.  It tasted like frozen air.

We went through Rob’s closet and found some things that fit.  Phil got a nice green v-neck sweater and I tried on a camelhair coat, bigger and heavier than Phil’s. We kept the small lamps going and put on a little fashion show in the floor-length mirror stuck on the back of the closet door. I put on Rob’s hat and went around the room knocking things over and doing my best Rob imitation. Phil laughed until he fell down.  Rob didn’t.

“You were always so sensitive,” I roared at the figure on the futon, surprising myself.

Then Phil went under the mattress and into the freezer to get more baggies of coke and we made a lot of plans about selling it. He told me to stand up on the back of the couch to pull down the dingy gray curtains and the rod and the big plastic rings.

“The motherlode,” Phil said, sniffling. “You sneaky bastard,” he waved a finger at Rob. “You always…”

“Always what?” I asked from up on the couch, pushing the rod up off the brackets.

“Motherfucker,” Phil said. “I will stab you.” I turned back to the rod.

We cracked open each ring on the floor that was littered with coupons for Acme meats on sale and toilet paper and we took out the rolled up cash inside. Then we did more coke. We did it up and down the chunk of red marble that we’d balanced across the coffee table in the middle of the room.  We leafed through Rob’s porn magazines that he’d stacked next to the loft and made toasts to Rob with bills rolled up in our fingers like Mont Blanc pens. I threw his pewter chess set into the corner and put my hand through a wall.

Halfway down the block I remembered I’d wanted the jade statuette from on top of the speaker. Once back in the room I took other things.


We rode into Chinatown on Rob’s mountain bike. Phil sat on the handlebars. He was too heavy and wouldn’t sit still, and he kept shouting directions and waving his arms. We sweated and cursed and swerved from curb to curb. Trash sat soaking in the gutters. We didn’t have any more cocaine. The night was hopeless.

“Left, you imbecile!” he shouted, and we lurched into a silent street. We were looking for Phil’s car, which he’d parked somewhere north of Market. All the doors of Chinatown were shut. Fluorescent bulbs glowed behind the stacked-up windows.

“There’s no cars on this street,” I said.

“Yeah,” Phil said, hopping off the handlebars. He rubbed his nose and spun around on one foot. “No cars. Not mine. Not yours. No cars.”

“I don’t have a car, Phil,” I reminded him.

“You got a sweet coat,” he reminded me.

We stood in the street and talked about his wife. She was either pregnant or he hadn’t seen her in weeks. I wanted to ask Phil if he had any more, if he had been lying to me. He was a liar. He could do that. We’d left too much in the apartment. We should go back and get it. There wasn’t going to be a morning. Then Phil took out his wallet and opened it.

What he pulled out was a small photograph.

“Look here,” he said, getting shoulder-to-shoulder with me and holding it at arm’s length.  He took in a breath and let it out.

“This one’s the scientist,” he said, and he pointed to the chubby little girl on the left. She wore a red dress, ruffly like Christmastime. He kept his finger on her and he looked over at me to make sure I understood.

I pushed my hands into my armpits and shivered, and I laughed and I pointed at the picture. “So who’s this one?” I asked.

Phil dropped his hands and turned to me, exhausted. He stood there in the wet street and he blinked his little eyes. I realized I was about to shit myself.

But Phil shook his head quickly, like he was clearing it, and he pushed the picture at me.

“Just take it, please, ok?” I didn’t shit myself. I put it in my pocket.

I left Phil in the street. He was spinning in a circle. The black duster swung out behind him in the air. I wanted to turn the corner before it fell back around him, and I made it.


I put the camelhair coat and the bike in the dumpster of the tapas place a block up from me and watched TV until the sky got light again. Then I went back to the Royal.

Big Rich was in a booth with a glass of whiskey. His wooden cane was propped up beside him, the blind eagle-head furious. Big Rich had an impressive gray beard and he never seemed drunk.  He ran the Quizzo game on Thursdays.

I got a beer and sat down across from him.

“You seen Rob lately?” he asked me. Of course I hadn’t.

“Probably offed himself,” Big Rich said, looking out at the bar. There were a few men just off the night shift, their caps pulled down low and their arms folded in front of them. They stared at their Budweisers, not drinking.

“Probably just went ahead and did it,” Big Rich said, and sipped his whiskey. There were faded blue smears on the backs of his knuckles.

“Hey,” I said. “Let me ask you a question. If he was really going to do it. Rob.” I stopped. I started again. “If Rob was really going to do it, how do you think he’d do it?”

Big Rich put his hand on the head of the cane and looked at his hand. He turned the cane on the floor with his hand.

“You know,” he said. “I gotta be honest. It’s like you’re from somewhere else.”

After that I started going up the street to the Locust.


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