James D’Angelo’s ‘It’s A Shame What People Do Here’ is a story about dealing with the wake of mistakes and acknowledging what is still here despite all that has gone. Ruby, looking for a fresh start, has come to claim her meager inheritance in Philadelphia, ‘a red-bricked row home on Cherry Street.’ An irritating ex is helping her move in, possibly with some fresh expectations. Memories of another ex have become swathes of regret in Ruby’s mind. And then there is the neighbour Aaron, the guy Ruby’s now-dead mother used to call ‘the helpful guy next door,’ but who seems slightly off-kilter. Is there a genuine human connection somewhere for Ruby? Can she even let such a thing happen? Read to find out.
— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine
The day the fountain in Logan Square spurted back to life, I returned to Philadelphia for the last time and collected my meager inheritance: a red-bricked row home on Cherry Street.
“This is so like you, back in town for another thrill,” said Chuck, my ex-boyfriend and the only person I had left to ask for help moving. I didn’t have to offer an expensive dinner as a bribe so much as he demanded one, his treat. He said my companionship would be payback enough. And I reluctantly accepted—a small price to pay for a fresh start.
He lingered on the U-Haul ramp, a poorly taped box popping open in his arms.
“The move’s for school,” I said even though I’d told him before.
“Yes, Marriage and Family Therapy. Sounds wholesome. But my girl will find some way to get weird.”
“I’m not your girl anymore. And that’s all behind me.”
“We’ll see what happens.”
I hooked my keyring around his extended pinky as he passed me on the ramp and headed inside. And when I trudged back down, a desk lamp in each hand, a man holding a beer in each hand emerged from the house that shared a wall with mine.
“Morning,” he said and set one beer on the stoop. “I’m Aaron.” He squinted, the brightness penetrating his clear lenses suspended in a wiry frame. Springtime breeze ruffled his orange hair and beard.
“Ruby.” I extended a lamp to shake in place of my hand, but he relieved me of the lamp with his free one and my warmth met his frigid palm as he held the cold bottle of Miller between two fingers.
“Oh you’re that Ruby,” Aaron said. “Your mom mentioned you.”
“I think my mom called you the helpful guy next door.”
“Not the worst way I’ve been described. So, I’m assuming you know the story?” He sipped. “Your house used to be a speakeasy.” His smile grew while he let me appreciate his fun fact.
Already I felt the Philly love taking me back into its arms. A few months ago in February when I came into town for my mother’s funeral, a woman touched my arm in the elevator lifting me to the estate lawyer’s office.
“Don’t look so scared,” she’d said. “We just won the Super Bowl so we’re all very friendly right now.” Later that day I toured the house in a grief-stricken daze so I could sign some paperwork that I never fully understood.
“Is that so?” I said to Aaron. “My parents never told me it was a speakeasy. But it’s also not the house I grew up in.”
“Yeah, it’s an old rumor really. I like collecting lost things. Little histories like that. I could keep you and your boyfriend entertained for hours.”
“My bad,” Aaron said. “I shouldn’t have assumed.”
“It’s okay,” I said with a laugh, “but here’s my little history. At the end of every relationship, the guy quotes lyrics from ‘Ruby Tuesday.’” I nodded to Chuck returning to the street. “Even him.”
Chuck’s eyebrow raised. He shot a glare at Aaron. “I’m always on her mind.”
I hurt a woman I dated once too. But she never spoke to me again. I didn’t tell Aaron about her then because men get the worst ideas when they hear that fact.
“Need a hand?” Aaron asked me and not Chuck. Despite his dad bod stuffed into a too-tight flannel, his face looked lean like if he couldn’t lift fifty pounds today, he could’ve done so at Christmas.
“You really are the helpful guy next door, huh?” In that moment, dead parent approval won out over being alone with my ex-boyfriend, and I lurched forward, grabbed for Aaron’s beer-holding hand, pried loose a chilly finger to hold, and prayed I read the situation right. Prayed his glasses didn’t let him penetrate my plastered-on face and see how I was a lost thing. “Chuck, you can go now,” I said. “I know you’re busy and we’ll be fine without you. And don’t wait up for me for dinner.”
He scowled at Aaron. “I usually save my drinking for a bar.” Then grunted at being dismissed after carrying one box. He marched up to me and seeing my hands occupied, tucked my keys into my back pocket and briefly cupped my ass. Before storming off, he whispered, “You’re making it weird.”
Aaron and I had the U-Haul empty by the time Jeopardy! aired.
“Should get a pizza or something,” Aaron said, stretching knots from his back. “I know a great spot around the corner.”
I had no friends left in the city to invite over. I had no food to cook. And I didn’t want to be alone. “Sure. This place smells like a funeral home anyway.” Part lilies, part embalming chemicals. “Better air it out.”
I slid open barred windows and then we walked to the fountain at sunset. Green copper turtles and frogs spit water into fading light while lounging Native Americans wrestled swans and fish.
“Beautiful,” Aaron said.
“The fountain?” I said. “My car might have Florida plates and I didn’t grow up in that house, but I’m from Philly. Used to splash here as a kid.” Our pace slowed once we crossed the circle.
“Why’d you leave Florida?”
“Change of scenery,” was all I said. But in truth, the state was becoming more and more unlivable for people like me. Whatever flaws I have, I know when I’m not wanted. So I left and returned to the only place I once felt I belonged.
“Fair enough,” Aaron said. “I don’t suppose you know this fountain’s secret history?” As we lapped the fountain on our way to the restaurant, he pointed out which figure represents which river: the Delaware, the Schuylkill, the Wissahickon.
“Schuylkill,” I repeated once we reached the pizza place. “I hope my pronunciation has convinced you I used to live here.”
The restaurant’s name rang only vaguely Italian. Not full-blooded like so many places in South Philly or like the woman I hurt who wasn’t from South Philly at all but Edison, New Jersey.
Over sausage and pepper pizza, Aaron told me about the fountain’s namesake Dr. Swann, who wanted Philadelphians to drink clean fountain water, avoid alcohol, and stay sober. On the darkened walk home, Aaron grabbed my hand and squeezed tighter when he said Logan Circle used to be a killing ground. I slipped free without eye contact and he said the gallows claimed over one hundred lives, the last being a man who stabbed his mistress to death.
When we reached my door, he said, “Funny, if I was in charge of naming that fountain I would’ve called it Death and Purity.”
The evening chill prickled my forearms. Cars rumbled in the distance and the fountain gurgled.
“Did I mention my house used to be a brothel?” Aaron said. “There’s probably a secret tunnel connecting us in the basement.”
Getting weird, Chuck’s voice tingled my mind.
Helpful guy next door, I thought back.
“I should get to bed,” I said. “Big day tomorrow.”
He sighed, waited, and didn’t ask follow-up questions.
I smiled, mostly in relief I didn’t have to explain tomorrow was orientation for my head-start summer semester and an interview to land a big scholarship, without which I’d need to borrow against my house, my only inheritance.
He waited more. Scanned my face which I hoped wasn’t signaling my longing for a kiss. Even if I did, in fact, long for one. I hadn’t dated a man since Chuck. And hadn’t dated anyone since the woman I hurt. Wouldn’t let myself date anyone until I made up for the pain I caused. Always figured I’d know how once the moment came and it hadn’t yet.
“It is funny though.” I leaned toward my house. “Speakeasy.” To the fountain. “Sobriety.”
“Right.” He shuffled for his keys. “It’s a nice reminder to…well anyway. Been good meeting you.”
Overnight, I heard Aaron crying through our shared wall. At ten I crushed my pillow over my ears. At midnight I thought about asking if he was alright. By three I’d rehearsed what to say enough times I convinced myself not to knock on his door because we didn’t really know each other. And I didn’t want to make it weird.
When I pushed outside to head to school, late from stealing back sleep through four snoozes of my alarm, Aaron waited on my stoop. His feet propped on a case of Yuengling blocked my exit.
“Thought your speakeasy could use some fresh stock.” He lifted the case, nodded to my door. Eyes glowed bloodshot in the sunlight.
“I couldn’t. Don’t have anything to trade your brothel.”
“No charge. I’ve got plenty.” He sighed climbing my steps and stumbled once, as I turned in place at the top, my backpack twisting around my body. I unlocked the door and let him into my house for the second day in a row.
“I really have to get to school. Does the Broad Street Line still take tokens?”
“School? What for?” He leaned toward my counter dividing kitchen from living room and hoisted the case. Leaned more as if the case’s weight directed him.
“Therapy. Marriage and Family stuff.” I winced and clenched my jaw because the next question is always why would I choose that field and then I’d have to give the only answer I had. When families break up, people get hurt. And I’d hurt my share of people so now I wanted to help.
He dropped the beer with a clank. Strutted back to the living room and paced the wood-paneled shared wall. Fingertips skimmed the thin barrier. “That’s really noble of you.” He reached the room’s edge, hand transferred to my loveseat, skirted past, and walked close enough his Yuengling breath startled like a different kind of alarm with no snooze. Yesterday’s inquisitive man-child who collected small histories suddenly loomed over me. Arms bulged like he could lift not just fifty pounds but lift me, force me into his car and take me wherever he wanted.
“Well, thanks,” I said. “But you know, school?”
He collapsed into the loveseat, face mushed the cushion. Something like a snore escaped his throat.
“It’s funny,” he said with eyes closed. “Your house is the exact mirror image of mine. Different but the same.” He said this like he’d never been inside before yesterday.
“My mom never invited you in?”
“Can I stay here while you’re out? I can’t go home right now.”
He rolled over, jeans scraping the loveseat’s fabric. “Bad memories. Can I?” He sniffled, lifted a sleeved arm to his nose then under his glasses. “I just can’t go home.”
“I’d prefer to know why.” I checked my phone’s time. If I didn’t leave now, I’d miss my train and if I missed the train, I’d miss my scholarship interview and be forty grand in the hole. Then I briefly imagined dialing 911, even though police would make me even later. Aaron would still be my neighbor tomorrow and I couldn’t sell the house I just inherited without somewhere else to stay.
He tossed into a sitting position. Glazed eyes stared into my blank TV then to the end table holding the framed photo of me, the woman I hurt, and her son at the shore. She wears a two-piece while I’m in a one and I remember feeling thankful that day because we were with her son at a beach filled with too many onlookers to publicly display affection.
“You look happy there,” Aaron said with slumped shoulders and glimmers of tears forming. “Who are they?”
“My sister and nephew,” I said. “Why do you need to stay in my house?”
“I helped you move.” His gaze fixed on me. “So if you do the helpful guy next door this favor we’ll be even. And when you get home, I’ll tell you why.”
Here I was planning to be a therapist, and right before my first class I had a potential patient throwing himself on my couch. The old Ruby would’ve freaked out, called the police and had Aaron removed, at gunpoint if necessary, but some higher force I wanted to align myself with, rack up good karma with, told me helping him would be the start of my atonement. With no family of my own left to heal, Aaron would have to do.
“Let me think about it,” I said even though I’d made my decision. I dashed to my bedroom, scooped my few pieces of jewelry into my backpack, and pulled the door. Back in the living area with hands on hips, I surveyed and found nothing else of value. “Okay you can stay.”
“Are you gonna walk by the fountain on your way to school?” Aaron said, his eyes watery and searching.
“I think I just might.”
“Ruby!” Aaron wailed the moment my key hit the lock.
I burst inside, kicking the door closed.
“Ruby I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He leaned half off the loveseat—the photo of me and the woman I hurt and her son clutched tight in both hands. Its glass frame was shattered across the mandala-patterned area rug. “I was just looking at it and…and you know, testing it in different lights. And I dropped it.”
I blinked and zoomed out from the bits of glass burrowed in my carpet. Beyond its edges rested scattered Yuengling cans, drained and crumpled.
“Hey man, it’s alright.” My tentative fingertip on his shoulder drew his gaze to me.
“It was just a nice photo. You all looked so happy.” He frowned, ran a hand over his face. “Let me clean this up. Do you have a vacuum?”
“Yeah, you put it in the closet yesterday, remember?”
He tried to stand but I motioned to sit again. Dumped my backpack and took my seat in the only other chair.
“Aaron, I heard you crying.”
“Last night I mean.” I shook my head and swallowed. Weren’t there some rules about not offering therapy before getting a license? And possibly more rules about how to handle patients falling in love through transference? I’d deal with that when and if it came. He needed someone and I was there.
“You heard me? Figures. The walls are thin.”
“You didn’t want to go home this morning.”
“I promised to tell you about that, didn’t I? Glad I’m finally talking to a therapist. My fiancé, or ex-fiancé—”
“Aaron wait. I can’t give you therapy.”
“Because I’m not married and I’m not a family. I get it.”
“No, because I’m not a therapist yet. But I can listen. As a…friend.” We hung in silence, me expecting him to call a real therapist and him maybe expecting me to pry but I’d decided long ago, when I was a patient who left several sessions feeling gutted and missing pints of blood, that wasn’t the type of therapist I was going to be.
“My ex-fiancé, her name’s Diane. I think you would’ve liked her.” A smile passed over his face, gone as quick as it came. “I can’t get her out of my mind.” His head tilted slightly at the broken picture then with a long exhale he finally set it down. “She had these secret recipes. Everything was so sweet. She even found a way to make ghost peppers sweet.”
“So Diane’s your ex,” I said, not asking but rather giving him comfort in knowing he was heard.
“Yeah, she’s been my ex for over a year. Longer than we were engaged.”
A truck rumbled past and shook the house. Beer cans rolled into slivers of afternoon sun, and I reached for one. Cracked it but didn’t drink. “Did Diane like beer?”
“I barely drank when she was around. She made sure of that, until she couldn’t. That was around the time she said I was poison to women.” A sniffle bellowed from his nose. He stood and stretched. Paced to the kitchen counter and back to the loveseat. “Your house is…it’s like I’m reliving it.” He pointed to my door. “There’s where she said her last words to me.” To the kitchen. “Where I smashed the plate.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” He had me drifting to the woman I hurt again. She didn’t say I was poison to women. She said I had no spine. That I let society program me into a hateful person. “Would you like to sit again? This all sounds heavy.”
He paused then locked in on a sloshing beer caught between two mismatched floorboards. He marched to it, set it upright, then sat. “What she said hurts more now than it did then. Back then I was too drunk to give a shit. Now I’m missing her, but also what we were supposed to have. When we lost the second baby I kinda shut off. All I cared about was drinking. Just to get away, you know? I think she wanted me to fight for her, but I didn’t have it in me.”
“Someone begged me to stay once,” I said. “Cam still lives close and…” I cleared my throat and didn’t say the prospect of running into her vibrated through me every time I entered the city. “Does Diane still live nearby? Because I left the whole damn state when my thing ended.” Heat flushed my face. I shouldn’t have made it about me.
“But now you’re back.”
“Sorry for derailing.”
“No, I could use the distraction.”
I gulped the beer. “Me too.”
“You’ve probably got homework, I should go.”
“Just a little reading.”
He reached for my backpack. “Let me read to you? After I vacuum.”
“That’d be nice,” I said as he dashed to my closet, his balance surprisingly functional after so many beers.
“Hey, did you get the scholarship?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, even though the decision would take at least a week. A good therapist might’ve analyzed my desire to lie to him, just so he’d hear some happy news. A good therapist might also dig into his want to read to me. Maybe say he was fulfilling some desire to nurture a child he never had. But I wasn’t a good therapist. I was just his friend.
Aaron cooked me dinner. He said he felt strong enough to go home and harvest ingredients from his fridge since mine was bare. My hand touched his, only partly an accident, as we both reached for the aluminum foil.
“I’m feeling better, really,” he said.
“I don’t like pity. And I feel like I monopolized the time. Tell me about Cam.” He spun and slipped the baking sheet of foil-wrapped chicken thighs into the oven.
I set the timer. Flicked the oven light on and off. Ransacked my drawers for scissors to open the bag of pre-mixed salad.
“Thinking about Cam makes me want to scream.” Absent scissors, I yanked at the plastic until it burst and lettuce and cabbage swizzles rained down on us.
“If you’re stressed you should go back to the fountain,” Aaron said as he stooped and gathered carrot shreds.
I knelt beside him. “Does that help you? Because I walked by it today and I didn’t feel anything.”
He hummed affirmation. “Lots of families with kids there. Weirdly makes me happy to see them. People talk but the water swirls all their voices together.” Aaron rose, groaned, tossed handfuls of veggies in the trashcan. “If I close my eyes, I can almost hear Diane’s voice in the fountain, like she’s still with me and singing harmony.”
I knew that feeling too, of lovers living within you. Except where I should’ve kept Cam, all I had was an open wound shaped like what I left behind. A hollow for the wind to rip through, not meant to fit Aaron and his lost children exactly, but they could shelter for now and staunch the bleeding. Because you don’t live with an open wound. You die from it.
With his head cocked, he washed his hands and let the water run and run long after the soap rinsed. He faced me, offering me both a turn at the sink and a chance to speak. A good therapist relates to their patient’s pain. Lets them know they’re not alone. Telling my story was at least as much for him as for me. Chuck would’ve said I was making it weird, but I was moving past what he or anyone else thought about me.
“I should start by explaining Cam is a woman. And don’t give me that look every guy does when I say that.” When he gazed intently, no glimmer of threesomes in his eye, I looked away at the remaining beers we’d gathered and stacked neatly on the counter. “That’s her in the photo you broke, by the way. And her son I adored. He was five and wasn’t fazed by two women dating.”
Aaron leaned into the fridge and didn’t follow my gaze to the beer. “Times are changing, huh?”
“Little by little. But both of us had only dated men before. We were together for a year. I know it’s not much, but I fell in love with her and her son. She kept me hidden from her parents as long as she could. Then I found out why.” I grabbed a beer, rotated it through my grip. Found no comfort in the warming metal. “Right when she introduced me, her mother shouted that her grandson wasn’t growing up with two moms. Mind you Cam was already on the rocks with her parents since she got pregnant at nineteen and didn’t marry the dude. They threatened to cut off all financial support. And they’re loaded.”
“So she broke up with you?”
“She grabbed my hand and said she loved me and didn’t care. It was me who shook loose and left. It was like all the shit I didn’t know I internalized hit me at once. Suddenly I was afraid of what people would say. The looks we’d get in public. Her parents turning her son against me. I couldn’t face it and at the time I told myself it’d be easier on the kid if I left.”
Through his glasses peered understanding eyes, only a little moist with empathy. Rather than replying with immediate platitudes, he gave my words space for a clean exit. Rather than swooping in for a hug, maybe even a kiss in my raw state, he strolled to drawers, fetching silverware and napkins for table setting. “I’m sorry you went through that,” he said at last, acknowledging my experience without doling out blame. “Tell me about the boy. What was his name?”
“Ryan.” I explained how Cam named her son after her favorite singer. How the father was involved intermittently and how I fit so easily into the empty space.
Once, on a lazy weekend in the kitchen of Cam’s apartment, while she kneaded dough, I had to pull Ryan away as he slapped at her legs. He had wanted another Cosmic Brownie, but it was nearly lunch time.
“Kind hands, please,” I’d said, a phrase I learned from her to soothe his tantrums.
“Kind hands,” he’d whispered back with a nod.
“And he calmed down instantly?” Aaron asked me. “Sounds like you two had quite the bond.”
“Three years later and I’m still missing them both,” I said. “It’d be one thing if I told Cam I didn’t love her anymore. That sucks, but it happens. But I wasn’t strong enough to love her. The shame was unbearable.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“Because I thought I was better than that. Most of my friends took Cam’s side. I moved to Florida because I couldn’t face them. So I’m hoping to help families since I ruined the only one I had left.” I paused. “Even before my mother died, we didn’t speak much. And my dad died years ago. And remember Chuck from yesterday? He’s the last man I dated and the only one who didn’t care about what I did to Cam. If that gives you any idea of what I’m suffering to make things right.”
Aaron smiled as he pulled chairs back from the table. “It paints a picture. But it’s been three years. I think you’ve suffered enough.”
I’d heard those same things from my therapist in Florida, but I needed to hear them from someone who’d lost what I had.
“Oh,” I said, “and I also stalk her social media to see what music she’s listening to so we can stay connected in that small way.” I exhaled, having nothing left to confess.
He turned to me, stood straight. “You’re gonna be great at what you do, Ruby. Because of what you’ve been through. Should we make this a standing appointment?”
“Meet me at the fountain tomorrow morning? I could use a helpful friend next door to walk me to the subway.”
The next day I opened my door to nothing but clear morning and headed to the fountain to find a crowd encircling Aaron at the water’s edge. Mumbled offers of help washed away in the bubbling. I peeled two onlookers apart at the elbows and found Aaron’s back to me, the torn sleeve of his flannel rippling in the breeze.
“Aaron, it’s me.”
He turned. Blood streaked his purple cheeks and orbits. Brown caked under his nose and his flimsy glasses bent and tangled around his ears up into his messed hair. “Bar fight,” he said and made a show of flexing split knuckles, turning only to wince from the pain of broken bones. Red oozed from gashes in his arm. “I spent the night here waiting for you. Didn’t want to break my promise.”
“I’ve got him,” I said, panning the crowd and inching closer. “What happened?”
He spoke low enough the dispersing gawkers couldn’t hear. “I felt so good after our talk yesterday I took a walk. But I guess my demons won out. Then I ran into your man Chuck around closing time.”
“He did this?” I yelled.
A woman pushing a two-child stroller crossed into the fountain’s sandy perimeter. She scowled at us, then turned away, shoving her children around the loop. The boy in front pedaled air while his sister behind him sucked at her wrist.
“I think I started it. Or the booze did. He called you something I shouldn’t repeat and I wanted to defend your honor. To make things right like you’re doing. You know, since we shared our little histories.”
He bristled when I touched his arms with kind hands. He shuddered when I suggested getting stitched up at the ER. I hugged him anyway, his stains becoming mine. We parted to the crisp kiss of blood peeling from fabric.
Aaron turned and with eyes forward, slipped off his sneakers, tugged the socks, balled them up and stuffed them into his shoes. He stepped into the fountain, barely flinching at the cold creeping up his ankles.
The woman with the stroller and two kids revolved around the circle again. She angled to leave the loop, her curve kicking up dust. She grimaced at Aaron then looked to me, brows tight and nose crinkled like she was watching a burning car pileup, and said, “It’s a shame what people do here, isn’t it?”
I paused and considered all the lives taken in this spot. The sobriety. Death and Purity. Then studied her widening eyes searching for agreement and realizing the bloodstains on my shirt meant she’d find none. She wanted me to say that yes, this bleeding man with no shoes is everything wrong with the city and he’s no better than what we keep in the zoo. And now that I was on this path of acting with love, without caring for what others thought, I’d never say that.
I blinked long and slow and sandy gravel beneath us shifted into the beach Cam and I would take her son. Rushing tides carried his tiny voice squeaking for me to build a sandcastle and then brave the surf and play the splash game. And if I squinted, Cam’s silhouette flickered in the sun-kissed water.
Tandem waves and undertow pulled me into the fountain where I splashed Aaron still bleeding and unclotted and the water clouded like frothy tomato sauce beneath us, but then he splashed me and the water ran pure and clean even though the fountain rests on a killing ground, and soon we were pure and clean too and the woman had left but that didn’t matter because we weren’t putting on a show for her because she thought it was a shame what people do here and maybe what we did in the past was a shame, but Aaron and I are here now and now what people do here is beautiful.
Author | JAMES D’ANGELO
James D’Angelo is an attorney, mediator, and teacher from Philadelphia. He earned an MFA in Fiction from Western Michigan University where he served as fiction editor at Third Coast. His work has appeared in Yalobusha Review, Hearth & Coffin Literary Journal, Fiery Scribe Review, Third Wednesday Magazine, and Bacopa Literary Review where it won the Fiction First Prize in 2020. He’s querying a novel about two sisters surviving the foster care system.