The Final Twist

“Well, that’s from another opera, Ivan Ivanych,” said the teacher. “Let’s get some sleep.”

—“The Man in a Case,” Anton Chekhov

Last week, sitting next to me on my stoop, Joe Tatu pulled an old Polaroid snapshot from his back pocket. Joe’s my neighbor, and we often pass the time in front of my house in the afternoon drinking beer from shot glasses. Usually, Joe talks and I listen. He’d never shared a picture before. The colors were muted, everything overlaid with a yellow-green glow. I held the photograph in my hand. It took a moment for the details to come into focus. Dark suit, thin tie. Hair brushed back from a widow’s peak. A smirk, and a cigarette dangling between fingers. His style came straight from the Rat Pack.

The image grew sharper, then fuzzy again. A chartreuse daydream, Joe’s and mine. In the park across the street, the sound of a pickle ball match—thwack, thwack—beat like a metronome.

“Who’s this?” I asked Joe, returning the picture to his hand.

“He taught me how to throw a punch,” he said.

“Really? He looks just like somebody who did the same for me. How do you know him?”

Joe stared. I couldn’t tell if he’d heard my question. Joe weaved in and out of conversations, moving like the wrestler he used to be. His ropey arms, still impressive at eighty-seven years old, proved he had the juice to be a champion. Sometimes he leaned closer, eyes intent, concentrating. A blank expression showed when he was drifting away, back to the past, as though he were gathering strength for his next lunge in the present. “Lots of bodies,” he said. Bodies—what bodies? Dead bodies? Buried there in the park? I was confused.

I sat with the feeling, sunlight sparkling green on the leaves and the air cool. Birds chirped in the trees. Joe seemed sleepy, eyelids drooping, the lines on his craggy face growing darker. I waited for him to continue. I’m more patient than I used to be. After decades of circling the globe to pitch the next big idea—hustling, as my father would’ve put it—I sit on the stoop and give others the time they need to find the right words.

But that was it for Joe’s words that day, leaving me with more unanswered questions as he shuffled off to his row house down the block. A blurry figure in a picture. Buried bodies. My own story is as murky to me as Joe’s. What happened in the past? Childhood friends. Family. Decades spent on the road. And now I’m here, in South Philly. What’s the significance of an event—a near-fatal beating, a divorce, a brother’s suicide?

I watched Joe open his front door. Then I went into my house and walked up the stairs to the bedroom on the third floor, where the kids used to sleep. It’s there I keep boxes of old letters, cards, and photographs. My wife says I should do something with the stuff—like organize it in albums and arrange the books on a shelf. But how do I decide what goes where? The past never stop changing long enough to figure it out.

In a box we kept underneath the bunkbeds, I found a picture of Eddie Aquafredda, my cousin. He was a ringer for the guy in Joe’s Polaroid. I hadn’t thought about Eddie all that much until last week, sitting there on the stoop. Eddie became semi-famous when a Florida detective published a book about him a couple of years ago called Cojones. The sub-title was the Life and Times of a Gentleman Gangster. I learned things about my family from Cojones that made me feel like a stranger to myself, including mob connections, casinos in Havana, and a bookmaking operation in the Southeast. Millions were stashed away in overcoats. Even Donnie Brasco made a cameo appearance. It’s hard to imagine those facts finding a place on my hypothetical shelf of scrapbooks.

But I do remember Eddie teaching me, when I was thirteen and he was nineteen, how to throw a punch. We were standing in the backyard of our grandmother’s house on Canal Street, in New Orleans. The air was thick and vines hung from the trees. He wore jeans and a white t-shirt. His hair was greased just so. Eddie thrust his fist out toward an imaginary cheek. “Rotate your fist when you hit the other guy’s face,” he said. Break the skin. Inflict the most pain. Eddie learned the technique from Pa. Pa—that’s what he called his father, who ran gambling bars outside the city in the bayou. The twist was useful when a sailor got out of hand. Blood flowed and order was restored. I pantomimed the move, but my heart wasn’t in it. Then Eddie showed me the marked cards and phony dice Pa had given him as a birthday present. I could tell Eddie thought I should be impressed.

That scene is part of my story, but I’ve never been able to find a place for it alongside the other memories that shimmer like Joe’s photograph. They’re disorganized like the items in the box that lay open on the floor. But I retain my faith that everybody—even me—has a story you can follow, through all the digressions and the dead-ends. It’s in the telling. Mine landed me here, somehow, on this stoop.

Today, Joe sits by my side again. Pickleball pops in the park. His shot glass is half full. I haven’t touched my beer. In my mind, I’m picturing Eddie in our grandmother’s backyard.

“Remember that photograph you showed me?” I say, looking over at Joe. His face is vacant. He’s somewhere in the past. But I keep trying. “Joe?”

“Yeah, nobody did it better,” Joe says after a moment, his fist flying toward an invisible opponent. “The final twist does the real damage.”


Mario Moussa is a writer living in Philadelphia. His stories have appeared in Write City and Flash Fiction Magazine.