The Polish Puma

First drink was always on Duffy. If it was your first time in his place that is. He didn’t judge. If he’d never seen your face, he’d say, “Name’s Duffy, what do I call you?” and put out his paw. Once he knew your name he’d never forget, even if you didn’t come in for a while. Any drifter, ex-con, hooker, vet, saint or sinner who wandered in off the street, they all got that first one on the house. Sometimes the person wept for having gone so long without a kindness. That was something to see, and I’d walk out of Duffy’s thinking the world wasn’t such a toilet.

But Duffy was no pushover.

I saw him break up this fight once between two dumb brutes who’d gotten into it over a game of eight ball, to the point of cracking each other’s heads with cue sticks. Duffy sprang over the bar with animal speed and was on them in a blaze of fists and feet—we’re talking about a former prizefighter known as The Polish Puma in the super middleweight class who, after that, got his black belt in Kenpo karate. Maybe fifteen seconds later both men were clean laid out on the floor, Duffy looming over them like Ali over Liston. But he didn’t hold grudges. So when they came to he had whiskey shots waiting and they were all friends again.

No one in the whole North End could take care of business like Duffy.

And his heart was big as his fists.

If you came to him in trouble, like if you needed bail or a little extra to make rent, or if you needed a couch to sleep one off, he was your man, without question. My first beer came from Duffy, not my old man.

So it was real tragic to watch this cougar of a man turn into a declawed pussycat by way of the passing years. His body prematurely decrepit from all the violence it’d seen, and he couldn’t remember names or newer faces much anymore.

By then most of the longtime regulars had moved on after this biker club infested the bar. Called themselves The Vendettas. They’d been coming in for months, but Duffy couldn’t keep track of them all. You knew that when, after one stooled up, he’d say, “Name’s Duffy, what do I call you?” and offer one on the house. The Vendettas always took a free brew. Not once did they ever own up or offer to pay. It was costing Duffy hundreds every week. So one day my friend Punk Silcox went up to Mooch McQuaid, leader of the club, and said something about it being pretty low, taking advantage of Duffy that way. Mooch thought about it, said, “When you’re right, you’re goddamn right,” and bought Punk a beer to prove it. He and some others waited till Punk was walking home from the bar. They jumped him, kicked him silly with steel-toed riding boots. He nearly died in the hospital, one lung punctured by a broken rib. Punk told police he didn’t see any faces, it happened so fast. And no one came forward as a witness. He only told me the real story after he healed up and left town.

You couldn’t do anything. The Vendettas ruled the house.

Irony of it is they were about the only thing keeping the bar afloat. They didn’t do me half bad either. This was after they lost two members in a shootout. Over one of their sisters what I heard. She got roughed up at some party by an outsider. So they rode on out to his duplex. They were four. And they called the man out. No answer. Then the door swung in. Dude inside opens up with an AR-15. Two Vendettas fell dead right there on the stoop. Another wounded. Mooch was the fourth. He wrestled the dude to the floor and bashed in his skull with the butt of his own rifle.

After it went down, Vendettas trickled into Lad’s Menswear. Ladislav is my dad. Amazes me I still haven’t changed the name. The shop’s been mine ever since this redhead walked in. It was my sixteenth summer. She wore the sun on her bare shoulders and lazily spun the necktie rack. Dad all too eager to wait on her. I was in back, taking in a suit jacket the way he showed me. Before long their voices changed, like they were dancing with words and laughter. The door chimes jangled. When I looked up from the worktable they were gone. Almost twenty years now and still no sign of the bastard. I tried to fix Mom up with Duffy after that but she was too bitter on men, and anyway, the bar would always be Duffy’s mistress.

The Vendettas wanted me to sew memory patches on their vests. To a biker club, the vest is cherished no less than a loved one. It tells each member’s story through patches, like if he’s a full member or probationary one, his rank, club colors, chapter, road name, shit like that. A memory patch honors a fallen brother.

What I didn’t know? A vest can’t be left with a stranger. It has to be protected. So a Vendetta always stood by quiet as a palace guard while I worked, looking on like every stitch was life or death. Eerie is what it was. Most customers walk in with an itch to bullshit, and I’m used to scratching that itch. But I’ll keep working. I can show you a suit, trade stats on the Tigers, and hem trousers (slung over my shoulder) all at once. Dad used to say, If I hadn’t learned to jaw while I work, we’d be on food stamps. Sometimes I think about looking him up, but what would I do then, hug him or shoot him?

For every patch job I learned to put a little ceremony in my thread hand. Treated each vest like it was an Armani piece though most were smelly and worn. My air of reverence, however false, helped ensure their repeat business. I did the work after hours so they wouldn’t scare away the day customers.

When it was all said and done, I’d handsewn forty-four memory patches. Two to a vest, one for each of the killed, for twenty-two surviving members. Plus any other patches they wanted. Thing of it is, after every job, I always felt a little dirty. But a greenback from any hand spends the same.

It was Sunday evening, Christmas only a week away. Before I left the house, the wife and me joined hands around a long wooden match and lit a candle on the Advent wreath. Right as the wick became flame she whispered we were with child. On this news we held each other, before God, till she felt the Glock tucked in the small of my back, asked me not to go to the bar. She knew The Vendettas were getting more out of hand and didn’t want me to get myself killed. But I had to go. It was my night. Duffy couldn’t afford help anymore so a couple of us traded off as barbacks for him on weekends. Plus I did his books. We didn’t want him to know the cage of a nursing home.

I came in humming a light tune that night. When Duffy asked about my mood I told him the news. He bear-hugged me and we did shots of Polish potato vodka to celebrate.

I topped off the ice chest, filled the beer coolers and changed out a keg, which left me now fisted with a cold one on the stool farthest from the entrance. Peak Vendetta time was going off—you could hear Fat Boys and choppers chugging in from a mile away. Their women would come later, after the boys were good and greased.

Bar was maybe half full. Most gave me a nod.

About this time a Vendetta I knew as Drake Turner took a stool. I’d not long before sewn a patch on his vest signifying his probationary status. He’d been coming around a few weeks but Duffy didn’t recognize him, so he got the spiel and one on the house. Drake thanked him real sweet and slammed the beer. When Duffy turned his back, Drake moved over to the next open stool, flipped on a beret, and let Duffy see him sit down like he just got there. Again, Duffy mistook him as a first-timer which meant another brew on the house. Whenever Duffy turned his back, Drake moved to the next open stool: different name, new hat, free beer. Besides the funny hats, Drake would stretch his face into different characters and change his voice.

Turned out this was part of his initiation into the club. And there I was letting them play my friend that way. It still shames me to admit I was afraid to do something, and I didn’t want to lose their business. The neighborhood was changing. People didn’t seem to need a tailor like they used to. And soon there’d be another mouth to feed.

Finally, Drake got to the last open stool towards the door. He wore geeky eyeglasses with a bucket hat now to further entertain everybody. Duffy turned to him, held out his hand and said, “Name’s Duffy, what do I call you?” In a dignified drawl, the wiseass strokes his goatee into a point and goes, “Mephistopheles the third, but call me Meph.”

Most of the boys were about falling off their chairs. A few didn’t seem to care for it by their faces. But Mooch, who’d just served a deuce up in Jackson, he condoned it with his cackling, with his hand pounding the counter.

So Drake, as Meph, waits for his next beer on the house. Duffy reached into the cooler and could only give him and all those hyena faces a pussycat smile. Without conscious directive my body rose from the stool and began walking toward Drake. I touched the piece behind my back, afraid I might use it, afraid I might not, afraid of living out my days feeling dirty, in a haze of fear and complacency. In that moment, Drake really was the devil to me. He represented all The Vendettas and all the months they’d been preying on Duffy, what they did to Punk. I was going to put the Glock to his head, make him pay for all those drinks or else give me an excuse to put a hole in him. Luckily he was at the other end of the bar and the walk gave me time to realize, if I kept on, it would be the same as walking away from my family sure as my father did. So what if my way was by suicide.

Still, it took all my will to stop at the halfway point and leave the Glock tucked where it was. Right then Duffy’s hands lifted above the counter with a sawed-off Sterlingworth, and he sent Meph back to hell with fire from both barrels.

With animal speed he switched the shotgun out for two 357. mags, nickel-plated, one in each hand. Vendettas scrambled for the door, jumping over their fallen comrade whose chest lay opened like a red flower come to bloom in the dead of night. These boys were scrappers. They weren’t afraid of a fight, or a killing. But on this day herd mentality was retreat. They’d never seen a man sneer till his incisors shown prominent as fangs, or heard an inhuman roar once used in the ring to intimidate opponents. They’d never seen such savage intention, swift and invincible in its forthrightness. The Polish Puma had found his way back through a demented fog.

Duffy’s guns thundered, and it was almost pretty how the stained-glass lamp over the billiard table exploded, way the jukebox flashed neon when the face glass shattered. I couldn’t tell if he wanted to kill more Vendettas or his bar. The place emptied out in a heartbeat. Then I saw Mooch, who’d hidden himself below the bar counter overhang. He either didn’t see me or decided I wasn’t a threat. Up he came with a semi-auto aimed at Duffy. Nothing I could do but shoot. Duffy fired at him, too, but his guns clicked. Mooch turned on me so I kept pulling my trigger. He got one round off that went stray. I kept firing, kept him reeling. Shot him right out the door. A strong man can take quite a few 9 mm bullets before he goes down. Newspaper said he made it three blocks on his chopper before he fell over dead in the street. I’m pretty fine with that.

Bar was a church then.

The silence holy.

It was as if the Messiah had empowered Duffy to smite the wicked. In that strange quiet, after such a ruckus, I didn’t know if he knew me as friend or foe. But then he nodded at me. “Shit, I ain’t that far gone yet am I, Danny?” he said.

It was the second best Christmas present I ever got, to hear him remember my name again, to see the blue of his eyes shine beyond his predicament. “Fuck if you’re not still boss of the North End, Duff,” I said, laying my smoking Glock on the bar counter. I sank to a stool before my legs gave.

In his new clarity, to consecrate his return, The Puma ambled out from behind the counter, stepped over the body like it wasn’t there, and pressed some buttons on the juke. It still worked. Out came the jagged knife of Joplin’s voice slashing through the neon dim, through all that had come and gone, and pretty soon Janet was preaching how freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, her words answered by siren wails from a distance. Where would we have run?

Duffy, back behind the bar, came down to me and wiped my piece clean with a rag. He gripped it with his naked hand then tucked it in his waistband. Still taking care of me, like he had since I ordered my first beer from him, and as if to bring it full circle he cracked the top off a PBR, remembering my brand for the first time, hell, since maybe the Tigers won their division. He set it in front of me and put a spin on the bottle like he used to. What a gift that was, to see him as his old self again, his mind clear as this alpine lake I saw once while stationed in Germany. But how quickly a lake can fog over, and how strange that his voice jangled like door chimes when he stuck out his hand, said, “Name’s Duffy, what do I call you?”  

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