Jul 7 2013 9:00am
Sugar Pop Moon by John Florio is a debut crime novel set during Prohibition (available July 9, 2013).
Jersey Leo is the quintessential outsider—an albino of mixed race. Known as “Snowball” on the street, he makes a living as the bartender at a mob-run speakeasy in Prohibition-era Hell's Kitchen. Being neither black nor white, he has no group to call his own. His own mother abandoned him as a baby. And his father-a former boxing champ with his own secrets-disapproves of Jersey's work at a dive owned by one of New York's most notorious gangsters. So when he inadvertently purchases counterfeit moonshine (“sugar pop moon”) with his boss's money-a potentially fatal mistake-he must go undercover to track down the bootlegger who took him in. The clues lead to Philadelphia, where he runs into a cleaver-swinging madman out for his femurs and a cold-blooded gangster holed up on a Christmas-tree farm. Now with a price on his head in two cities, Jersey seeks help from the only man he can trust, his father. As the two delve into the origins of the mysterious sugar pop moon, stunning secrets about Jersey's past come to light. To ensure his future, Jersey must face his past, even if it means that life will never return to normal.
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 booming—the 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 regulars—the 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 mathematician—he’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 meal—along 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 color—brown, white, yellow, purple—if 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 swill—it’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 tougher—and way more expensive—than 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 Herald Tribune.
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 brain—he’s the chess champion at the Hy-Hat—but 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 thing—and 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 disappeared—then resurfaced two weeks later selling newspapers in Times Square, unable to shout “Extra!” because Jimmy had taken out his tongue.
“Santi, bring Officer Larch a couple of beers while I figure out what’s going on.”
“Immediately,” Santi says and heads to the bar.
My underarms are hot and clammy as I make a beeline past Santi and trot down the cement stairs behind the right pocket door. I walk through the kitchen to the back of the house; then I lift the broken wooden palette off the tiled floor in front of Jimmy’s office. Muscling open the hatch, I carefully make my way down the three drop-steps and land in the dank subbasement. Santi calls this place the ratacombs on account of the furry creatures crawling around. I see one scamper across the floor but I let it go. It’s good that the little bastards are down here; they keep uninvited punks from venturing too far into the space.
The ratacombs are dark and the musty air cools the beads of sweat that are forming across the back of my neck. I light the lamp under the hatch. To my left is the underground stairway that climbs up to Jimmy’s office, but I head for the metal utility door that’s camouflaged to look like part of the brick wall. Jimmy keeps the liquor piled up in a dark hole that is part of the neighboring row house, 321 West Fifty-Third Street. In one of his usual fits of paranoia, he bought that house just to have a place to store the stash. “Off-premises,” he calls it. He even had some fancy law firm on Fifth Avenue create a paper trail that put both places in his cousin’s name, so if the Feds were ever to stumble upon the liquor next door, they’d have to pin it on Jimmy’s cousin. And Jimmy’s cousin is dead.
The door is heavy, but I push it open and make my way to the stash. I rip open two cases of shine, pull a brown bottle from each, crack their paper seals and taste them. The first is counterfeit for sure. The second is even worse. I go through four bottles before finding a decent one.
I’m screwed. I bought this stuff off of a guy I don’t even know, a crook named Denny Gazzara. It’s not like I had a choice. Owney Madden’s boys wouldn’t drop their weekly shipment with me. They drove up in their polished Studebaker, tailed by a truck full of whiskey just like always, but the big guy with the cauliflower ear said he wouldn’t hand off the booze unless he met with Jimmy first. When I told him Jimmy was staying out of sight until the heat from last week’s raid dies down, he leaned out the window and told me flat out, “This load ain’t for niggers.” The joke is that I’m practically as white as he is, but I guess that never occurred to him.
Looking back, I’m thinking Gazzara could have had a mark on me right from the start. I was riding the train down to Philly when he grabbed the seat to my left. He settled back, took out some ledger sheets and began marking them up with a short, sharp pencil. It’s unusual for a white businessman to ride in the back car with the colored folk, but I didn’t question it at the time; I was too busy enjoying the fact that somebody was willing to sit next to me. He seemed like a regular Joe College—all decked out in a fancy suit and polished leather shoes— except he had the face of a street urchin. A dark scar crossed his right earlobe, making it look as if it were caught in a slipknot. And his eyes were two different colors. The left one was brown—as dark as a chestnut—and the right one as green as a young blade of grass.
He’d only been sitting for a few minutes when he put down his ledger and started chatting me up. I’d heard his name before, so I wasn’t surprised when he mentioned his operation. He said he was cranking out cases of moonshine made from beets. Sugar pop moon, he called it. Then he took out a flask and let me try some. Whatever he gave me was damned good stuff, far better than the street shine that’s been making its way around Hell’s Kitchen the past few months. This moon tasted better than our house whiskey; it was rich and smooth with a bite of rhubarb.
I didn’t give it much thought. I didn’t have to. I needed to stock the place and start pouring some booze or Jimmy would have me bussing tables again. I agreed to sixty dollars a case—nearly as much as Jimmy pays for his best liquor—and then I practically begged Gazzara to get me eighty cases before dawn.
His boys delivered to the Pour House at three o’clock in the morning. Santi and I each taste-tested a different bottle that we pulled from a random case. It was the same stuff I’d had on the train—Santi liked it, too—so I paid the runners. Not wanting to get busted by the Feds, we rushed the cases into the Pour House and stacked them by the bar. Then Santi and I lugged them downstairs, through the kitchen, and into the ratacombs one at a time, so nobody, especially not Denny’s boys, would know where we kept the stash.
The runners must have known which bottles we would taste. The cases are probably flagged, but I don’t bother searching for the marks. My albino eyes aren’t worth a single bottle of this rotgut. I’d be lucky if all they did was shimmy back and forth, but they make the world look like a watercolor caught in a light mist. It doesn’t matter—I don’t need to read these labels to know there aren’t many good bottles in the batch.
If I tell Jimmy I gave his cash to anybody but Owney Madden’s goons I’m as good as dead. I’ve got to replace the shine or return the money before Jimmy gets back. My first thought is to hijack one of Madden’s trucks and steal the booze, but I’d never get away clean—it wouldn’t take Madden long to track down an albino smuggling a truckload of liquor.
I walk upstairs into the dining room. It’s filling up and I need to start taking dinner orders, but I’ve got bigger fish to fry.
Santi pulls me next to the fireplace. “All of it’s bogus?”
“Enough of it,” I say and look in on the bar. Everybody’s happy. Two middle-aged drunks are singing along with the radio. “Body and Soul.” The redhead next to them is swaying in place, holding a martini in her hand. Life sure is easier when you’re drinking booze and not serving it.
“You have to straighten this out,” Santi says.
Over Santi’s shoulder, I see Larch smoking a cigarette and using his empty plate as an ashtray. I’d ask for his help but I don’t need a cop, I need a miracle.
“And you have to start at the root of the circumstances,” Santi says.
I get that he’s talking about Gazzara and he’s right. To get Jimmy’s money back I’ve got to shake the bastard down. And since Gazzara isn’t coming up to the Pour House, I’m going to have to go down to Philadelphia and walk into his warehouse—in the middle of a town where my only protection, the name Jimmy McCullough, doesn’t mean shit.
Copyright © 2013 John Florio
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John Florio was born in Brooklyn, spent his childhood in Queens, and now lives again in Brooklyn. Too young to remember the World's Fair, he recalls the Mets winning the World Series in 1969, when he was a Yankees fan. His dad was a cop who'd always wanted to play, so he and his brother studied classical piano, which came in handy earning money during college (most requested song: “As Time Goes By”). Later, he got into advertising, also creating TV programs and music scores, before giving in to his love of books and starting to write novels.