Seven Stories Press

Works of Radical Imagination

When Benny Lost His Meaning

January 02

A short story by Barry Gifford from The Cuban Club

Roy was sitting at the counter in the Lake Shore Liquor Store on a Saturday morning in November sipping a vanilla Coke listening to Lucio Stella and Baby Doll Hirsch talk.

“Remember Mean Well Benny?” asked Lucio.

“Worked for Jewish Joe. Spidery little guy. Got rung up for killin’ a crooked cop.”

“McGuire, in Bridgeport. The Paddy guarded the mayor’s house.”

“What about him?”

“He’s out. Mastro seen him at Murphy’s day before yesterday, eatin’ a steak without his teeth in.”

“What happened to his teeth?”

“Guess he had ’em yanked in prison. Mastro said Benny put his choppers in a glass of water while he gummed the steak.”

“He got plans?”

“Probably.”

“We should find out.”

“How’d he get that tag, anyway?”

“It was Jocko named him Mean Well because too often he did things he wasn’t told to do that didn’t turn out well.”

“Such as?”

“Time he offered Lou Napoli’s girl, Ornella, a lift to Lou’s crib, only Lou wasn’t expectin’ her and happened he was entertaining a waitress from Rickett’s at the moment. Napoli worked for Jocko and when Lou told him how it had come about Ornella stabbed him and he almost lost a kidney, Jocko said, ‘You know, Benny, he means well.’ After that, he was Mean Well Benny to everyone in Chicago, even the cops.

“Shootin’ McGuire was a mistake, too. He thought it was McGuire had leaned on Jewish Joe, so he threatened him one evening in Noches de San Juan, a PR bar on North Damen. McGuire took offense, busted Benny in the mouth, so Benny parked a pair in the cop’s chest. This was after McGuire got thrown off the force.”

“Maybe why he got false teeth in the joint.”

Roy liked going with his father to his liquor store on Saturday mornings. All kinds of people came in and Roy liked looking at and listening to them, even and especially if they were a little or a lot crazy. A week later, a day before his ninth birthday, Roy heard Lucio Stella tell Baby Doll Hirsch that Mean Well Benny’s corpse was found with his throat cut stuffed into a garbage can in an alley in Woodlawn.

“What could he been doin’ in that neighborhood?”

“Probably lookin’ to do some woolhead a favor he didn’t need.”

After Lucio Stella and Baby Doll Hirsch left, Roy asked his father if he had known Mean Well Benny.

“He used to come around. Why do you ask?”

“I just heard Mr. Stella tell Mr. Hirsch that Mean Well Benny’s body was found in a trash can.”

“Some men’s lives don’t amount to much, son. They get on the wrong road and don’t ever get back on the straight and narrow.”

The following Saturday morning Roy’s father took Lucio Stella and Baby Doll Hirsch aside and said something to them Roy couldn’t hear, then they left without finishing their cups of coffee.

“Dad, did you tell Mr. Stella and Mr. Hirsch to leave because of me?”

“I did.”

“Are they on the straight and narrow?”

“They don’t know what it means.”

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