Gogarty by Michael Deagler
A story about rediscovering life after living on the fringes
AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
Michael Deagler’s “Gogarty” is set in the West Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. As someone who was raised just outside Philadelphia and who lived there for several years before moving to New York, I am uniquely poised to make too much of this detail. I do not know if there is a shipping container like the one in which the narrator lives, in an empty lot somewhere in North Philly, nor does it matter. What matters is this: Philadelphia is a city in which everyone roots for the same sports teams. It’s a city with only one downtown, so if there is going to be a celebration or riot, everyone knows where to go. People aren’t always friendly but they make a lot of eye contact; they look at each other. It’s a city small enough for everyone to be in the same mood.
So what does this have to do with “Gogarty”? I’m not really sure, except that Gogarty, as the narrator calls himself, is a character representative of that city you know and love despite also knowing everything that’s fucked up about it. Gogarty is at once neighborly and dangerous, and Deagler writes him with a generosity of spirit that transforms insult into affection. There is some quality of the Wild West at work here too, which is how it can feel to turn a corner and suddenly find yourself on street lined with abandoned houses, the glimmering center city skyline still easily in sight. I suspect that readers of this story will place Gogarty in their own cities, rehabilitated or declined, that have been special to them: Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Detroit, New York.
Oliver St. John Gogarty, for whom this story is named, was a friend of W.B. Yeats, George Moore, and perhaps a frenemy of James Joyce, as well as the basis for the Ulysses character, Buck Mulligan. (He was also, notably but irrelevantly, a prolific savior of drowning men.) Gogarty’s relationship with James Joyce explains the narrator’s rant to his containermate Ginty at the top of the story, but as the door-to-door knife salesman later puts it, you don’t have to have read James Joyce to know what he’s about. The dialogue here is too good not to quote it in full:
“Mr. Gogarty, I’m not going to disrespect you by lying to you and saying that I’ve read James Joyce, because I haven’t, because reading — for my generation, I’m saying, not for yours — reading is for suckers and is a complete waste of time. But I know who Joyce is, I’m familiar with Joyce’s concepts, I think Joyce had a lot of great ideas, and I — and please excuse my profanity here — I respect the fuck out of James Joyce.”
And yet I’m asking you to read this story; you won’t regret it. I guess I’m a sucker with nothing but time.
Editor-in-Chief, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading
Gogarty by Michael Deagler
“Gogarty took umbrage with Joyce’s portrayal of Mulligan, but Mulligan never fired a gun at Dedalus, whereas Gogarty did fire a gun at Joyce, so I think he got off pretty lightly,” I said. Ginty said, “What are you talking about?” and I fired my gun at him. Not directly at him, so to speak, but I fired it west, and he was standing west. “I don’t want to be roommates anymore,” I said. He was running away by that point, though, so I don’t know that he heard me.
We weren’t roommates, technically, in that we didn’t share a room. We weren’t housemates, either, though, in that we didn’t live in a house but in a Hamburg Süd shipping container. And we weren’t anything anymore, as he had just run away.
Ginty was overly cordial. That was the predominant flaw of his character. He was always inviting irregulars into our home. He happily exposed our possessions to half of Philadelphia. Ginty welcomed in Codo the thief with his bandaged thief hands. Worse, he let in one of the dreadlocked brothers of the New Monastic Way. Ginty donated some of his own blankets to be distributed to the beggars and the fiends down on the Avenue. He let the brother pick through my library, too, which was not a lending library. It proved too weighty a strain on our arrangement. So difficult, living with people.
With him gone, I set to work snipping down the strand of twine that hung lengthwise through the container, demarcating Ginty’s half from my own: his with his hubcaps and army blankets and empty bottles of bourbon, mine with my stacks of alternative weeklies and library books and empty bottles of Canadian rye. Our divergent taste in spirits was already filling me with nostalgia, so I chucked the bottles with the twine out into the weeds and pulled my wicker chair up to the container’s entrance and sat with my gun across my thigh in the posture of independent homeownership.
Yes, I knew houses. I was past sixty and had lived in houses for the first long while. I found them to be perishable things, susceptible to fire, rot, and foreclosure. Plus, the banks had a list of all the houses and knew precisely where they were. Anywhere that a cellar got dug or mortar met brick or a person painted some numbers on a door, the banks seemed to know about it. The banks had an inside man at the post office, likely as not.
Only I knew where all the shipping containers were, beginning with their concentration in South Philadelphia by the naval yard and fanning northward and west in scattered locations around the city. Once they were set down in the dirt they rarely moved. I knew of a Kien Hung box that had sat behind the Fox Chase VFW since at least the mid-1990s. I knew a woman who birthed a daughter in it in ’96. Mine was the only container in West Kensington, though, and as such it was highly desirable. Containers were airtight and rust-treated, built to contend with the weather of the world’s roiling seas. If painted white and properly ventilated, they were more than tolerable. When shut up they were nearly impregnable. Best of all, containers received no mail.
I sat out in my wicker sucking in the evening air through my nostrils. It was May, and the calendar seemed to congratulate me for my solitude with a warm breeze and a quiet city. My lot was long and deep: three houses at least had stood on it before succumbing to their crumbly fate. There were only a few still standing up and down the street, poorly kept and overly occupied by extended Puerto Rican families. It was a small tertiary street that abutted an elevated and rarely used commercial rail line. The city hadn’t repaved its asphalt since the days of the Dilworth administration, and it had no name because I stole down both the street signs from either end of it and dropped them into a storm drain. If the Puerto Ricans noticed then they did not complain. My lot, unmowed in a decade, was in the throes of its vernal eruptions: yarrow, baneberry, shadbush, hornbeam. If left alone for a few hundred years more, it would become indistinguishable from an old-growth forest. Then it would really be something.
I closed my eyes and pictured the virgin woods of the unspoiled continent as they must have once existed. Silent and immediate, simultaneously intimate and vast. Not unlike a city, spatially. A city of trees. Soft light. The scent of moss and decomposition. Huge porous trunks like pylons supporting the dim deciduous firmament above. All the Northeast had been like that, once: a great unbroken belt of green. Before the arrival of the mapmaking Dutch. Before the timid Swedes. Before the apollonian English Quakers and the German Anabaptists. Before the feral, riotous, peasant-faced, famine-greedy, book-hating, corruptive, consumptive, end-of-the-world Irish —
“Excuse me! Sir!”
I opened my eyes. Down at the end of my trampled path, where it met the half-extant pavement of the sidewalk, a young man in an Oxford shirt and necktie stood holding a small black briefcase. “Beg your pardon, sir,” he called to me, “but I couldn’t help but overhear what sounded like a gunshot.”
I looked over my shoulder to find the spot where the bullet, which had ratified the dissolution of Ginty’s and my containermateship, had punctured a peephole in the door’s corrugated steel before sailing off into the western sky. I’d have to patch that. Though maybe not until the autumn arrived, when the draft would become unwelcome.
I turned back to the man, who by now was actually walking up my path with a cheerful confidence that must have been symptomatic of a deep, unchallenged stupidity. I waved my gun at him and he simply waved back. “I know around here the polite thing to do is pretend that we don’t hear gunshots,” he was saying. “I’m not even saying I heard a gunshot, definitively. But I pride myself on knowing the sharp report of a business opportunity.”
As he reached me he stuck out a pale, freckled hand. “My name is Seamus Costello. Can I ask you your name, sir?” He had a ruddy face and ears like jug handles and was markedly sweat-stained for the mild weather. He must have spent the day hoofing all around the neighborhood.
“Gogarty,” I said, which wasn’t my name, but my name was none of his business.
“Gogarty,” he said. “How melodious. I like it. Mr. Gogarty, as I’m sure you’ve surmised from my case here, I’m a man with wares. And deals. Wares and deals for you, sir. Mind if I sit down?” He looked around for another chair.
“Do what you like,” I said. “We believe in freedom here.”
He squirmed for a minute and then, having no alternative, sat down in the dirt, cross-legged like a fur trapper, and opened up his case. “I’ll skip my normal song and dance, since I can tell you’re a man who values his time. The product today is knives, Mr. Gogarty: the finest in never-sticking, never-dulling, never-rusting kitchen cutlery.” He spun the briefcase towards me to reveal an array of stainless steel blades of various dimensions, shimmering in the diminishing sunlight like the teeth of some long-extinct ocean terror.
“I don’t have much use for kitchen cutlery,” I said. “As I’m sure you’ve surmised from my container here, I don’t have a kitchen.” I didn’t eat much, to tell you the truth. Just the Canadian rye and the occasional spoon of peanut butter.
“Oh no? You don’t have a summer salad in your future?” He looked around at the shoulder-high shoots and brambles. “I’m sure you’ve got something growing out here that would chop up nicely. But that’s not really why I’m here. As I said, sir, I was walking down the street one block over and I heard a noise. Then I saw a man — an interesting looking man, the kind of man who looked like he might live in a shipping container in a vacant lot — and he was running down the street. He looked like he might be running away from the sound I heard, as if perhaps the sound I heard might have been directed toward him. Now, again, I don’t know that it was a gunshot. Maybe somebody threw a firecracker at him. Maybe a car backfired close to his head and gave him a terrible fright. But, if I had to guess, Mr. Gogarty, based on the fact that you are currently holding a firearm and that there is a bullet-sized hole in the wall of your shipping container right there, I would say that this man might have been on the losing side of a domestic dispute. Am I right?”
I hadn’t expected him to say any of that, and I didn’t know quite how to respond. “A containermates’ dispute,” I said.
“Containermates,” said the young man. “Right. No judgment. How’s it my business, really? Why should I care what anyone in this fair city of brotherly love does within the walls of their own homes? Why should I even know about it?” He reached into his case and removed a carving knife with a ten-inch blade. He spun it around his thumb like a drumstick and then offered it to me, handle first, as if he was surrendering a sword. “Check this killer out. Sleek. Agile. And, most importantly, silent. Had you threatened your buddy back there with this steely rebuttal, I wouldn’t have known anything about it.”
I took the knife and felt the weight of it in my hand. It was light, a bit disappointingly so, yet there was a professional balance to it that allowed it to rest snugly in my palm, the way stones of a certain size and shape feel immediately suitable to the human hand. It was, somehow, primeval.
I looked down at the grinning salesman, seated at my feet like an eager disciple. “Are you a student?” I asked.
There was a tautness at the edges of his eyes. “I like to think of myself as student-adjacent. I know a lot of students. One of my roommates is a nursing student.”
“Roommate.” I raised the blade in a gutting motion. “What’s his drink?”
“He doesn’t drink,” said Seamus. “And we don’t trust him. Ha ha ha. But seriously — ”
“Have you read James Joyce?” I said.
He paused, his face in cautious consideration, not wanting to ruin his sale by answering incorrectly. He said, “Mr. Gogarty, I’m not going to disrespect you by lying to you and saying that I’ve read James Joyce, because I haven’t, because reading — for my generation, I’m saying, not for yours — reading is for suckers and is a complete waste of time. But I know who Joyce is, I’m familiar with Joyce’s concepts, I think Joyce had a lot of great ideas, and I — and please excuse my profanity here — I respect the fuck out of James Joyce.”
I held the knife out straight, following the sight of my arm so the blade seemed to point at the slender gap between the young man’s eyes.
Seamus cleared his throat. “To get back on topic, though, Mr. Gogarty, statistics show that West Kensington has the highest murder rate in the city. Except for Strawberry Mansion, but I’m not trying to peddle steak knives to those teenage psychopaths. I’m just trying to offer a quieter, more intimate solution than ballistics to domestic friction. Don’t bother your neighbors. Don’t involve the police. Hell, you just stick the person a little and there doesn’t even need to be a fatality. Isn’t violence mostly just posturing anyway? Trying to get the upper hand in a relationship? Like mountain goats locking horns or wolverines pissing on each other or whatever the fuck they do? A lovers’ quarrel need not end up before a judge. Or a containermen’s quarrel, or whatever you said.”
“And how’s that going?” I asked. “Are the people around here buying?”
“Not exactly,” he said, his voice tight and frustrated. “I don’t know why, though. It’s a stabby world out there. I mean, doesn’t this make a lot of goddamn sense?” He rose to his feet, wiping the dirt from the seat of his pants. “But apparently not, in Kensington Occidental. The people around here are acting like they don’t speak English. These are third generation Puerto Ricans, for Christ’s sake, not off-the-truck Guatemaltecos. But you try to unload some knives on them and they get all, ¡No puñalada! No puñalada! and shoo me out like a Jehovah’s Witness. I’m a goddamn small businessman. This whole goddamn economy is built on my goddamn back.”
“Small businessman?” I asked. I looked at the logo on the butt of the knife. “Are you not an employee of Genroku Cutlery?”
“Genroku doesn’t have employees, only contractors,” said Seamus. “And, between you and me, I’m not even a contractor. I recently acquired a couple crates of these things because I thought I could unload them easy. Turns out there’s not a huge market.”
“Tell you what,” I said. “I’ll take this case off your hands, and I’ll give you my firecracker here. Since it’s so noisy.”
Seamus balked. “You’re seriously offering me an unregistered firearm? You got the paperwork for that thing in your aluminum box? We’re sitting in a vacant lot in North Philadelphia. Who knows how many unsolved murders are tied to that weapon? No thanks, Mr. Gogarty. If I wanted a gun I’d go buy a clean one at Walmart. I want cash. Or maybe a trash bag of cannabis, if you’re growing that out here in your safari park. But I’m not trying to add my fingerprints to a future piece of evidence. No offense.”
I ran my fingers through my beard. I wanted the knives: in part for practical reasons, in part for philosophical reasons, and in part, I’ll admit, for purely aesthetic reasons. I imagined myself clad in a bandolier of knives, facing down any interloper that attempted to reintegrate my lot into the city. Who wouldn’t be intimidated by a man wearing a bandolier of knives, holding the largest above his head like a machete, speaking the truth about the pleasures and liberties of container habitation?
I looked at Seamus, this shrewd philistine, and could not hate him. It was the culture’s fault that he had become the way he was. Stealing from him — marching him off my property at the barrel of my gun and keeping the knives for myself — would not likely teach him anything, except to become more self-pitying and reliant on others for his own notion of success, and would not likely cause him to see the error in his cynical thinking about the weapons trade. No, I thought I could help this young man, who was perhaps not unlike myself many years earlier.
“What about this,” I said. “If I can sell this case to my neighbors down the block, there, then you have to deliver to me a case for free.”
Seamus considered the offer a moment. “All right,” he said at length. “If you can get sixty bucks from them, I’ll give you a case for free. Deal?”
I didn’t want Seamus to come with me to the house, and I didn’t want him to leave either, so I decided to lock him up in my container. He didn’t want to get into it, but since he no longer had any knives, and since I now had all the knives and my gun on top of everything else, he had little choice but to do what I said. Once he was shut up in there and emboldened by the state of no longer having the gun pointed at him, he became decidedly less friendly and compliant and began to bang on the doors, shouting things to the effect of, “Gogarty! Gogarty! Yo, fuck you, Gogarty! You bearded fuck!” But perhaps he was claustrophobic and it was his own fear with whom he was truly angry.
I put the gun in the empty flowerpot where I sometimes liked to hide it, I packed up the knife case, and I made sure, as much as I was able, that there was nothing sticking in my chaotic hair. I did not have a mirror, so I did this mostly by touch, and also partially by looking at the silhouette of my own shadow, now stretched and inaccurate in the fading light. Then I walked down my path and out onto my anonymous street, up toward the nearest house, where I knew a young woman lived with her children and perhaps some of her siblings.
When I said before that the house was poorly kept, I meant that there were blue tarps tied over sections of its roof and facade, and that the mortar had chipped away from between many of the bricks, and the bricks themselves were in a poor condition because they were old and made of clay, the sort bricks that do not suffer frosts well and lack tensile strength and should never be used in construction in a non-arid climate. But the house had likely been built before the birth of my parents, perhaps before the birth of the grandparents of the young woman who lived there currently, so those responsible were likely long dead and beyond opprobrium. And really, it being almost summer, the house did not look all that uncomfortable, as the warmer months were kinder to old houses, particularly old houses that faced the northeast, as this one did.
I knocked on the door. I reached up to my throat and adjusted Seamus’s tie, which I had taken from him in order to look professional. I had also put on a long-sleeved t-shirt and the lightest jacket in my possession — it was camel hair — and the combination of all of them was making me feel a bit warm. The door opened, and the young woman was standing there in pajama pants and a tank top, with an apron tied over both. She was a short woman, with a ponytail and wide-set eyes and a face that looked as though she was about to clean out a rattrap. Or at least that’s how it looked when she saw me on the step.
As I opened my mouth to start talking, I realized that I had never spoken to this woman before in the several years we had lived across the street from each other; that, in fact, on a regular basis, I spoke only to Ginty and the clerk at the state store, and sometimes the mailman, who I liked to shout at; and these realizations made me suddenly nervous and I didn’t know what to say.
The woman seemed equally confused. “Can I help you?” she asked.
From behind her I heard the voice of another woman. “Angelys? Who’s at the door?”
“I don’t know, Ma,” called Angelys. She looked me up and down, at my case, at my tie. “It’s that guy, though. I don’t know his name.”
“Gogarty,” I said.
Behind Angelys the other woman appeared, just as short and a few decades older. She looked as though she might be nearly my age. “Angelys, don’t be rude,” said the woman. “Let the man come in.”
“No, Ma,” said Angelys, keeping her eyes on me. “It’s one of those guys that live in that box across the street.”
“Let him in, Angelys,” said the woman. “He’s probably a veteran.”
“Are you a veteran?” asked Angelys.
“Well, I — ” I began.
“Ma, he’s not a veteran.”
“Angelys,” said woman, “let him in. It’s Mother’s Day. You have to listen to me.”
“Hey, I’m a mother, too,” Angelys said to her. “I got three more kids than you.”
“Angelys!” the woman barked.
Angelys’s eyes narrowed as she stared into my own. “Yo, did you fire a gun earlier?”
“Fine, come in,” Angelys said and turned, walking away from the open door.
I followed the women into the living room. It had been many years since I’d been in a proper living room, and the geometry of it felt immediately alien and familiar. There was a couch and a loveseat, a coffee table, and a ridiculously flat, thin television standing on a rack against one wall. The older woman pulled me to the loveseat and bade me sit, while she moved to the couch, cuffing the knee of a young man who had been lying all the way across it.
“Well,” said the older woman, settling herself. “So you’re one of our neighbors?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m Gogarty.”
“Well, Mr. Gogarty,” said the woman. “You’ll have to excuse me for not knowing you. I’ve only just moved in here with my children. I’m newly retired and decided I wanted to spend more time with my grandkids. Though if I knew what a disaster state this house was in, I would have thought twice. My name is Grace.”
“Yeah, well, tell your son, if you hate it so much here,” Angelys called from the kitchen. “Derek was supposed to fix the roof.”
The man on the couch threw up his hands. “Yo, how do I know about roofs and shit?” he said. “You raised us in an apartment. When was I supposed to learn about roofs and shit?”
“Your roof is probably significantly past its life expectancy,” I said. “You’d probably be best off just replacing the whole thing.”
“Oh, do you know about houses?” asked Grace. “Angelys, maybe this man who knows about houses could fix up your house for you. Maybe if you offer to cook for him he’ll help you fix this house. You probably don’t get much good cooking in your box, do you, Mr. Gogarty?”
“Shipping container,” I said. “No, I don’t. But I haven’t worked on a house in a long time. Just my container. I do have a soldering gun I could lend you, though.”
“That’s very thoughtful,” said Grace. She cuffed Derek again. “See, you have no excuse now. Mr. Gogarty can show you how to do these things. My children are not as inept as they might seem, Mr. Gogarty. Right now, my daughter is making me a lovely Mother’s Day meal.”
I looked back to the kitchen, where Angelys was drinking a water glass of something amber-colored and glaring at me. “That’s wonderful,” I said.
“It is. Are you doing anything for your mother today? Or,” she asked, her voiced dropping, “has she passed on?”
“Yes, the latter,” I said, which was true, though I could not remember ever having done anything for Mother’s Day while my mother was alive, or ever actually being conscious of a day being Mother’s Day. My mother did not do a lot for me, to be fair. “I don’t actually have a family anymore.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Grace, a look of genuine concern on her face. “Well, you’ll have to stay and have dinner with us.”
Angelys slammed down her drink and called from the kitchen, “What? Ma, that’s one of the box guys. I told you about them. He lives in a box.”
“Angelys, don’t be rude!” shouted Grace. She patted my knee, and said, “Houses are just boxes, after all. Boxes with leaking roofs, for us.”
“What’s in the case, man?” asked Derek, nodding at my feet.
I had forgotten about the knives. No longer wanting to try to sell anything to the family, I quickly tried to think of some other object that might be in the case. “Knives,” I said.
“Knives?” said Derek.
“Kitchen knives. A full set. Kitchen cutlery. Never dulling. No-stick.”
“Why do you have knives?” asked Derek. “Are you selling knives?”
No, not selling, not anymore. But what was I doing with the knives? Holding? Transporting?
“These are a Mother’s Day gift,” I said. “I was trying to think of what I would get my own mother, and I decided that the thing she would like most is a new set of kitchen knives. But because she’s passed on, as you said, I decided to find a different mother to give them to. They’re brand new. Top of the line. Here. You have them.” I held out the case to Grace.
She held up her palms. “Oh, I can’t,” she said. “You’re too generous.”
“Why are you giving her the knives?” called Angelys from the kitchen. “Hey, I’m a mother, too.”
“Angelys, I’m a mother and a matriarch,” said Grace. “Thank you, Mr. Gogarty. That’s a very nice thing to do.”
“You’re a weird dude,” said Derek, pointing at me.
“Stop it,” shouted Grace, and she cuffed him a third time, on his ear. “My children are so rude! And on Mother’s Day! You stay with us, Mr. Gogarty. This will be the most wonderful day in a long time.”
With that she called down her grandchildren, who she introduced by age, ranging from three to eleven. She made them tell me about what they liked and where they went to school, and their ambitions for when they grew up, and how they would all definitely go to college, but also how the boys would know how to be handy as well, unlike their uncle Derek who only knew how to make excuses. It had been longer than I could remember since I had spent time around small children. Perhaps since I had been a small child myself. I was impressed with their candor and their free spirits. They asked me questions about living in my shipping container, and pulled on my beard, wanting to know if it was real and if I was terrorist or a mad scientist. I said I was a little of both, and they all laughed, and not uneasily the way that adults would laugh around me.
Soon the dinner was prepared and we all sat around the cramped kitchen table, and, according to the tradition of the household, the children all had to say something for which they were thankful but also something for which they wished. When it was time for Yadiel, who was eight, to speak, he said, “I wish I could live in the woods.”
Derek snorted. “You can’t live in the woods, Yadiel,” he said. “There’s wolves there. And wolverines pissing on each other and shit. You’d get eaten, man.”
But I said, “You know, Yadiel, a long time ago, this whole area was a forest. There was one great continuous primeval forest that stretched from Maine all the way down to Georgia, including Philadelphia, including right here. And the forest would still be here if people hadn’t cut down all the trees to make space for cities and farms. So it’s like we’re living in a clearing in the middle of a giant forest. That’s how I like to think of my lot across the street, as a clearing. And that maybe one day the forest will grow back up around me.”
“That’s fucking stupid, man,” said Yadiel.
“Yadiel!” said Angelys. “Be nice to Mr. Gogarty.”
“It might be stupid,” I said. “But sometimes you need a fiction to help you get through life. Sometimes you can find it in a book, and sometimes you need to find it in your imagination. This world can be tough if you let it make all your decisions for you. You have to meet the world on your own terms. But you kids are all lucky because you have this great family to help you. Having other people around you, even when they annoy you, can make this whole thing a lot more tolerable.”
At that Grace broke down into tears. “That’s so wise, Mr. Gogarty,” she sobbed. “Who could ever have imagined that my life would be so blessed!”
After dinner, Grace walked me to the door, saying, “Thank you for coming, Mr. Gogarty. And thank you for the set of cutlery. It was so lovely to have you visit. You’ll have to have us over to your box sometime.” I promised I would. She shut the door.
As I stood on their step, a strange feeling came over me. The best I can describe it, it felt as though a few dozen fingers had taken hold of me, and were washing my hair, and brushing my beard, and rubbing the skin of my scalp and neck and shoulders free of all the sweat and the dirt that must have been collecting there for years and years. Like these fingers had dipped themselves in clean, fresh water and fine-scented oils and were dancing over my skin, messaging all the years away.
I walked up the street to look for Ginty.
For more, read Electric Literature’s interview with Michael Deagler.