Deangelo Roccella jerks the classic ‘73 Nova into a space and kills the engine. He draws a comb from the pocket of his Ralph Lauren and runs it through his jet black hair, pausing to admire his Sicilian good looks in the rearview.
“Well, Cisco,” Deangelo says. “They got steak and they got cheese. So yeah, they got cheesesteaks.”
“You know what I mean,” Cisco says.
Cisco Taglione isn’t simple, despite what Deangelo thinks. Behind his back, Deangelo calls him ‘Tardo.’ He looks the part, though. A pug-nosed bruiser, Cisco wears the history of a dozen lost bar fights on his face and grease from the burger he wolfed down during the trip from Philadelphia on his tie. His neck is thick, his forehead protruding, and his eyes squint when he tries to concentrate.
The men exit the car into the night at Fourteenth and Parkwood in Washington, D.C., a ramshackle strip of skeezy bodegas and slop shops. High intensity street lamps cast the street in an eerie glow. There is trash piled high in the gutter and a homeless man slumped on a stoop.
Cisco leans against the Nova with one pudgy hand splayed out on the hood and the other digging out the underwear riding up his ass. He nods approvingly at a bar on the corner passing itself off as a restaurant, but all buttoned up like a strip joint. Its front door is covered by an iron grate, its windows barred and painted black. The only indication the place is open is the floodlight illuminating the sign above its entrance: The Pinch.
“That the place?”
“Yeah.” Deangelo slams his door. “Thought you’d like . . . Damn!” He scurries around to the passenger side and swats Cisco’s hand off the hood, then bends down and buffs the spot with his tie.
“Swear ta God, Dee.” Cisco gives his pants a final tug. “Act like that car is your bitch.”
“No.” Deangelo gives his tie a quick choke. “That’d be you. C’mon.”
Deangelo stops at the entrance to the bar and glances back at the Nova. “Before we go in, maybe you should check that thing.”
“It’ll be fine.” Cisco pushes past. “I’m starvin’.”
Inside, the Pinch is gussied up like a hipster’s wet dream with mood lighting, artistic photographs and a chalkboard behind the bar announcing the evening’s special: Stella Artois artfully paired with a scrumptious pulled duck panini. The crowd is solid bohemian, from the non-profit do-gooders to the amateur literary hacks doing prose readings in the corner.
Culture shock hits Cisco like a slushball.
“Oh my Christ,” he whispers.
“Sweeeeet,” Deangelo gushes. “Pulled duck panini. Let’s hit the bar.”
The bar is one of those wrap-around jobs with a faux stone top. Deangelo takes a stool next to a woman in an Andean sweater absorbed in her phone. Cisco takes a stool next to a young man in a vintage suit and fedora tucking into his panini. The rest of the bar is an even distribution of hipsters and business types, except for the bartender, a blond kid in a white dress shirt with his sleeves rolled up like a blackjack dealer.
“Gonna have the special,” Deangelo says when the bartender makes his appearance.
“Cheesesteak,” Cisco grumbles.
“Steak and cheese,” the bartender corrects, pointing to the item on the menu. “Excellent choice. Provolone?”
Cisco squints at the menu, the vein under his left eye pulsing. “I look like the kinda douchebag,” he says, raising his eyes to the bartender’s, “orders provolone on a cheesesteak?”
“Ahhhh . . . Steak and cheese. Thing is, sir, we have three offerings of—”
“I don’t give a cockroach’s ass how many offerings of cheese you got. You assumed provolone, so what I’m askin’ is, what is it about me that makes you think I’d order provolone?”
“Ummmm . . .” The kid looks to Deangelo for guidance.
“The stylish hair?” Cisco waves a hand through his greasy doo. “The ten-year-old suit?” He lifts off the stool and leans forward. “The classy accent?”
Time skips a beat at the bar.
The Andean sweater woman glances up from her phone. The fedora hipster flash-freezes in what looks like panic, cheese dribbling off his lower lip back onto his panini.
“Ciscoooooooo . . .” Deangelo tugs on Cisco’s jacket. “He ain’t trying to be outta line.”
The bartender’s head does this up-n-down-that’s-absolutely-right vibration thing.
“See?” Deangelo says. “He ain’t implying nuthin’.”
“Stay outta this, Dee.” Cisco drops a hand on the bartender’s shoulder and pulls him close. “Tell me, son. What is it? What immutable Goddamn characteristic of mine friggin’ screams provolone?”
The bartender’s pupils contract. “American?”
Cisco squints, releases the bartender and drops to his stool. “Hold the onions. And bring me a beer.”
“We’re pairing our sandwiches today with . . . crap. What kind of beer?”
Rolling his eyes, the bartender darts away.
“You’re a real piece of work,” says Deangelo. “You know that?”
“Principle of the thing.”
“Speaking of things.” Deangelo drops his keys on the bar. “Why don’t you go check that thing?”
“The thing’ll be fine.”
The beer arrives, a Stella Artois and a Budweiser longneck, followed by the food, a pulled duck panini and what passes for a cheesesteak in Washington, D.C.
“Oh my Christ,” Cisco says.
The sandwich, it’s a visual delight, a masterpiece of gastronomic splendor. On one slice of toasted ciabatta sits a layer of shaved Delmonico infused with melted cheese and dotted with ground pepper. Perched atop the other is an elaborate weave of lettuce embellished with alternating streams of rouge mayo and grey Dijon.
A tuft of basil on the side.
Cisco looks down at his plate, up at the bartender, then down at the plate. The sweater woman stops mid-text. The fedora hipster pushes back from the bar, ready to exit at the first sign of trouble.
The bartender, he’s holding his breath.
Cisco pinches a tuft of lettuce, holds it up to his face and squints. “Roquette?”
“Out of season, ain’t it?”
“Imported. Look, is everything –”
“It’s fine,” Cisco growls.
The entire bar exhales relief as the bartender walks away. Cisco mashes the sandwich together and takes a bite.
“How is it?” Deangelo asks.
“You see? All that over nothin’.”
“Still ain’t a cheesesteak.”
“You know what you’re problem is?”
“Please tell me,” Cisco says through a mouthful of sandwich. “What’s my problem?”
“You don’t never listen. The man told you it ain’t a cheesesteak, it’s a steak-n-cheese.”
“Kinda makes it a bigger lie, don’t-cha think?”
“What the hell are you talking about, lies?”
“Take this bar.” Cisco stuffs the remainder of the sandwich in his mouth, chews like a camel, pushes his plate forward and downs his beer. “Outside the place looks legit, grant you that, but inside . . .” He rolls his eyes.
“I get it. Dive snob. Place ain’t real enough for ya?”
“I’m just sayin’.”
“You know what your other problem is?” Deangelo pops the last slice of panini in his mouth, reaches for a napkin and dabs his lips. “You wouldn’t know a lie if one kicked you in the nuts. You ask the man for a cheese-steak. He tells you it ain’t a cheesesteak, it’s a steak-n-cheese. You say, okay. Then the man, he brings you what he said he would, a steak-n-cheese. How’s that a lie?”
“Ever wonder why they call it a steak-n-cheese?”
“I dunno.” Deangelo tosses the napkin on the bar. “Philadelphia got a copyright on the word cheesesteak. What’s it matter?”
“It’s because they want you to think it’s a cheesesteak, but want to be able to cover their asses when you complain. We never said it was a cheesesteak, sir. It’s a steak-n-cheese.” He holds up a finger. “When you lie without lying, it’s a bigger lie.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
Deangelo plucks his keys off the bar and jingles them in front of Cisco.
“Thing’s fine,” says Cisco. “Point is, it’s just like the nuns used to say.”
“You know I went to public school, right?”
“The nuns, they used to tell us that lying is a sin, but that lying without the risk of getting caught is a mortal sin.”
Deangelo signals the bartender. “Check.”
“Go ahead. Bury your head in your panini. World is going to hell, but as long as they keep feeding you your—”
“How does a sandwich . . .” Deangelo scowls at the check and tosses two twenties on the bar. “How’s that the end of the world? C’mon.”
Deangelo pushes back from the bar and heads for the door. Cisco follows him through the crowd. “You know what a fractal is?”
“Don’t know, don’t care.”
“A mathematical principle.”
“Math wiz. Pick that up in Catholic school?”
“It’s what you might call a natural phenomenon.”
“That a fact?”
“Patterns repeat themselves. A twig has got a bunch of smaller twigs jutting out, right?”
“And the twig, it’s connected to a branch, which has a bunch of smaller branches jutting out.”
“The branch is connected to a tree, which has what?”
“I dunno. More branches.”
“It’s a characteristic of the friggin’ universe. Small patterns become big patterns. Small lies become big lies. Start with a lie about a frilly cheesesteak and before you know it, that little lie becomes a hipster lie of a bar, which becomes a bullshit lie of a town. You take a step back and look at the big picture, it’s nuthin’ but lies all the way down. Ain’t no wonder Vinnie lost his way living here.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa . . .” Deangelo stops at the door. “You can keep that crap about Vinnie to yourself.”
“Whadaya expect? He moves to D.C. Buys a condo and takes up with a yuppie chick. Next thing you know, he’s ordering caffè lattes with cinnamon sprinkles and wearing a wire.”
“What are you, sympathizing with a rat?” Deangelo tosses the keys over his shoulder and steps through the door onto the sidewalk. “Check that thing,”
Cisco walks to the back of the Nova, slides the key in the trunk and gives it a jingle. There is a thud from inside. Kicking sounds.
“Shhhhhhh . . .” Cisco slides a canister of carburetor cleaner from his jacket and positions it with the words “Caution: Ether” just below the lock. He turns the key, cracks the trunk and unloads a ten-second burst into the black void. “There, there, Vinnie . . .” Cisco says. “Ain’t nobody blamin’ you.”
The wailing crescendos before petering out. There are a few halfhearted thuds.
Cisco gets into the passenger seat and hands over the keys. “All I’m sayin’ is, a dam doesn’t just up and burst. Starts with a small leak, you know?”
Deangelo gives his hair a check. “Whatever.”
“Maybe you’re right. Just a fake cheesesteak. Don’t mean nothin’.”
“But maybe,” Cisco leans in, “it’s just like the nuns said. You swallow enough little lies, one day they get so big they swallow you.”
Deangelo cranks the engine. “You done?”
The Nova peels off into the night.
Mike Madden is a writer and criminal defense attorney in Washington, D.C. His collection of nouveau-noir short stories, Savage Journey, and his breakout novel, The Fifth Streeter, are available on Amazon.com.