Biggest mistake I ever made was underestimating Buddy Parrish but even now with the way things worked out I don’t know if I’d live it any different.
The first time Buddy came in Zegno’s he walked straight back to our table without sparing a glance left or right. He barely slowed down when a waitress cut in front of him with a tray of drinks, and he didn’t lower his chin one bit when he finally stood in front of me.
I figured him for thirteen. Turns out he was fifteen and a half that day in ‘35, just small. Also he was called Buddy and never his given name. He’d been named for his father, but his father lit out before Buddy took his first step.
Those were things I found out later.
Buddy stood in front of me and waited for Notch to come to the punch line of his joke. Wasn’t like Notch couldn’t see him standing there, even in that dim place with smoke hanging heavy in the air, but you never could hurry Notch any. Notch finished and looked from me to Charlie, waiting for us to laugh. We didn’t. We were busy staring at Buddy.
“Is there something we can help you with?” Charlie asked, real sarcastic.
Charlie was mad because at our last stop this dumb greaser had managed to get a jab in on him before I shut the sap down good with a fast hook of my own. We’d gone to see a couple of slick Greeks up from Florida, practically still stinking of seaweed, who were running a little dive out the south end of town. They tried to convince us that no one had told them that only one outfit ran the slots in this town.
I didn’t buy it. I explained, real slow and careful, how their machines were now the property of Gold Ribbon Enterprises, the setup Steffy ran the dough through. In the future, they’d tote up the take every night and someone would be by to collect our half.
We had just finished showing them we were serious when that little bruno came busting through the back door and threw himself on us. The hit Charlie took on the jaw was swelling up. You could see the shadow of the bruise in the restaurant; under regular light it was going to be ugly.
“I said, you need help with something?” Charlie repeated.
“You’re Mace Halliday,” the boy said, to no one but me.
I nodded. Gestured he should go on. I was curious. Not because the kid knew who I was, but because knowing it didn’t slow him down.
“I need you to put a machine in my ma’s place.”
Not “please.” Not “sir.” None of that, and Buddy never did talk to me any way but plain, the whole time I knew him.
I kind of liked it. Right there I figured here was a kid a little like me when I was his age. Right there I started working on my mistake.
Brave was something I came by natural, like some kids might hit a ball far or whistle two octaves. I never minded fighting. Worked out my technique on my brothers, which was basically to do whatever it took to win. I never gave an inch if I could help it. If there was a place for strategy, for style, it was a place I didn’t much need to go.
Anyway that’s what I thought I was looking at when I looked at Buddy, with his shirt that had been mended once too often, his pants that didn’t stretch down far enough to meet his shoes, and that fierce set to his face that had yet to grow any significant whiskers.
“And what if I do?” I asked him, keeping my face serious. Part of the joke – I wouldn’t crack a grin until we were done. “You going to chisel me out of my take?”
“Keep it all,” Buddy says. “I don’t care. I don’t need no cut. Just all’s I want is protection.”
Buddy didn’t want protection for himself, but for his Ma. She wasn’t right. I never did understand the nature of what ailed her and I don’t know that Buddey ever did either. People didn’t put names on everything back then.
Mrs. Parrish couldn’t have been more than thirty-six, thirty-seven but she looked fifty easy, sitting on her stool behind the counter and selling beer and cigarettes and milk and boxes of powdered detergent without ever changing her expression, without ever saying more than the price and “thank you.” She wore a man’s plaid shirt over her dress and didn’t fix her hair; it hung loose around her bony face. She didn’t wear lipstick or perfume.
The only time there was ever anything in her eyes was when she looked at Buddy, but even then I couldn’t have guessed what she was seeing – there was just a little shadow of something. Love, or the memory of love, maybe.
The Parrish place had been held up twice before Buddy came to see me. The second time, the hoods were snowed up pretty bad and they shot a hole in the back wall as they were leaving.
Honestly, it wasn’t a place Steffy would even want on the books – a crumbling brick storefront in a block where decent people were moving out. The stock was dusty, and it didn’t bring in much more than rent money. Whoever hit the joint didn’t get much.
Still, Buddy was determined it wasn’t going to happen again, and he only knew one way to make sure. That way was getting on with Steffy G.. Every palooka in town knew Steffy’s joints were off limits.
When Buddy introduced me to his mother, Mrs. Parrish had only a nod for me. No smile, but no sign of disapproval either. I guessed Buddy had tried to explain about me in advance. As the slot men brought the machine in off the truck and got it set up, moving a shelf full of canned beans and vegetables to make room, she barely glanced at it.
Buddy meant it when he said he didn’t want any of the take. He worked hard and expected nothing more than what that sorry store brought in. He went to school, but the minute classes were over for the day, he was there in the shop and he stayed until it closed. Then he cleaned and swept and did the figures.
I made him take his cut, though. Fifty-fifty, like all our joints. In exchange, I gave him my promise that I’d take care of the place personally. I guess I had a special interest. You should have seen how serious Buddy took everything, how he wrote the figures on the envelopes in perfect penmanship every night, how he was never a cent off the tapes.
So I took care of the Parrish place by myself, even though by then Steffy had put me in charge of the crew, and I didn’t have regular rounds like the others. Mostly I just dealt with problems. Depending on the nature of the problem, I’d take Charlie or Notch or both of them along. Usually it only took one visit like that. And if it took two, the person causing the problem usually wasn’t around to cause any more.
But I kept the Parrish place for myself. I made sure Buddy understood the deal. Fond of him or no, I was still Mace Halliday and I still worked for Steffy G. and there wasn’t any room to play around. If he crossed me he’d pay just like anybody else.
Buddy didn’t argue. “You do your job,” he said. “I’ll do mine.”
I was back at Zegno’s the day the Parrish place got hit for the third time. I couldn’t believe it. No one with any sense would go near one of Steffy’s joints. But here was this kid, younger than Buddy, staring at the floor and shaking like he was going to piss his pants as he delivered the message.
As I drove over I figured it had to be drugs again, probably some hop-head who drifted into town desperate for a score. Regret wouldn’t begin to cover what was in store for the punk – Steffy succeeded because there were never any exceptions. Justice was delivered fast and hard, even if it was just a junkie, even if I had to track him across state lines, even if the take was five bucks. No exceptions.
When I got to the store Buddy was standing in front with his hands hanging loose at his side. I took one look at those skinny arms and that smooth, serious mug of his and something inside me kind of went sideways. I put an arm around him in an awkward hug, but he turned away before I could say anything.
I followed him in. No sign of his ma in the store. Buddy turned the sign to “Closed” and took me in the back room. And there’s this guy laid out on the floor with blood coming out his ears and his forehead caved in. I guess I’ve seen every flavor of death but this one made me catch my breath. Wasn’t expecting it, I guess; I didn’t ever think Buddy would just go and take him out like that.
Was still looking at the guy on the floor when I realized Buddy’d locked the door behind us. Buddy raised his arm toward me and it took me a second to realize the gun he was holding was mine. My little snubnose .38 – Buddy’d taken it off me when I put an arm around him.
“I ain’t gonna kill you, Mace,” he said, and I looked at him real hard and saw he’d bit his lip till it bled. “And I ain’t gonna do your right hand, neither, ‘cause I know you need it. But we still got to do this. Like you said. No exceptions.” And he picked up a heavy hammer that was lying on a crate, and showed me where to lay my hand.
Years later, when I got married, I had to wear my wedding ring on the other hand. My fingers healed, but the knuckles stayed bent and knobby. They still aren’t good for some things.
I could have gone after Buddy. I’m pretty sure I could have taken my gun back from him that day, and I should have. But I didn’t. I made up a story to tell Steffy, and when Charlie asked me about my hand twice I let him know not to ask a third time.
I kept on with the Parrish place until Buddy’s ma went into a state home a couple of years later and he went to junior college and the whole block where their store had been was razed for apartments.
We never had any trouble after that day. I made sure the place wasn’t hit again. Buddy always had my envelopes ready. We both kept our end up.
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