‘The Best Part of the Story’: New short fiction by Barry Gifford
Roy and four other boys, all of them twelve or thirteen years old, were standing in front of Papa Enzo’s Pizza Parlor talking and smoking cigarettes, just hanging out even though the temperature outside was well below freezing. A foot of snow had fallen the day before, most of it had hardened and iced over, but the boys, wearing parkas or peacoats, did not mind the cold, they were used to the Chicago winters; only when a fearsome wind was tearing in from the lake did they not gather on the street, especially on weekend nights such as this one. They could hear Buddy Holly’s new record “Maybe Baby,” coming from the jukebox inside Enzo’s.
It was almost ten o’clock when Jimmy Boyle noticed Logo Leberko lurking next to the doorway of Papa Enzo’s restaurant.
“Hey, guys, look — there’s that creep Leberko standin’ by the entrance. I thought he was still locked up at St. Charles.”
“Nah,” said Tommy Cunningham, “Bobby Dorp told me yesterday they couldn’t keep him in the reformatory after he turned eighteen. They either had to release him or transfer him to Joliet.”
“He and another guy robbed Koszinski’s Bakery, didn’t they?” Roy asked.
“Tried to,” said Boyle. “It was so stupid. Leberko’s mother works there and when he and Dion Bandino stuck up the joint Logo’s old lady was behind the counter. Accordin’ to the article about it in the Trib, Leberko said, ‘Ma, I thought you weren’t workin’ today,’ and she said she was fillin’ in for someone who was out sick, so she identified him for the cops.”
“That’s crazy,” said Roy. “They really went through with the robbery even though his mother was there?”
“That’s the best part of the story,” said Richie Gates. “They had guns, my brother told me. He used to deliver cakes for Koszinski’s, so he heard all about it. Both Leberko and Bandino had ’em in their hands when they went in.”
“Did Bandino get sent to St. Charles, too?” asked Roy.
“Yeah,” said Cunningham, “but he got out sooner ’cause he was only fifteen.”
“Leberko’s a moron,” Jimmy said. “Remember how he was always shakin’ down younger kids for their milk money at Clinton? He’d take their change then stomp on the kids’ lunchboxes and slap ’em around even though they’d already come across.”
“He got me once,” said Richie. “After that I took off if I saw him in the schoolyard. He didn’t get past fourth grade, then they had to let him out when he turned sixteen.”
“His old man was murdered in prison,” said Tommy Cunningham. “Other inmates set him on fire in his cell.”
“No shit,” Jimmy Boyle said.
“Yeah. My father thinks he was snitchin’ for the guards.”
The door of Papa Enzo’s opened and two people came out, one of whom was Dion Bandino. Leberko came up quickly behind him and with an eight-inch switchblade cut Bandino’s throat clear across. Blood exploded out of Bandino’s neck like flames being tossed out of a bucket, turning the snow at his feet into a sea of vermilion. For what seemed to Roy a long time, though it was only a few seconds, nobody moved except Leberko, who disappeared. Dion Bandino was dead and didn’t know it as his body accordioned down and knelt with his chin resting on his chest.
Roy and Jimmy Boyle took off in one direction and Richie Gates and Tommy Cunningham in another without looking back.
After they’d run as fast as they could for a few blocks, Jimmy and Roy stopped to catch their breath, and Jimmy said, “I thought Bandino would fall forward. He just dropped and didn’t topple over.”
“I never saw anybody get their throat slit before.”
“We can’t say nothin’ about it, Roy. Don’t tell nobody we were there. We don’t want the cops to make us be witnesses against Leberko. If somehow he beat the rap he’d come after us like he done Bandino.”
“Why do you think he did it?”
“Bandino must’ve caved, maybe said the stick-up was Logo’s idea, that he’d been forced into it by an older guy.”
Roy was still gasping for air; even in the darkness he could see his breath.
“I’m goin’ home,” he said.
“Me, too,” said Jimmy. “Remember, don’t tell anyone we were there.”
When he got home, Roy’s mother was sitting alone at the kitchen table. Her eyes were red and her face was swollen.
“Hi, Ma, why’re you cryin’? Are you all right?”
“Not really, no, Roy, but it’s nothing you have to worry about. Did you have a good time with the boys?”
“It’s too cold to be outside.”
“I’m going to make a pot of tea. Do you want some?”
“No, thanks. I’m pretty tired. I’m going to lie down in my room. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yes, Roy. It’s just that Dan and I have decided to not see each other any more. It’s for the best, I know, we’re really not a good match, but I feel like my dog just died.”
“We’ve never had a dog.”
“Oh, you must know what I mean. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s a kind of death, nevertheless. There are all kinds of deaths. Some stay with you more than others, you’ll see.”
Four days later the police found Logo Leberko hiding in the boiler room of an apartment building a few blocks away from Papa Enzo’s Pizza Parlor; scraps of food he’d scavenged from garbage cans were scattered on the floor and he was covered with rat bites. Roy and his friends were not questioned about the incident; other witnesses, including Dion Bandino’s companion that night, Arvid Gustafsson, whose mother also worked at Koszinski’s Bakery and was the person Leberko’s mother was substituting for the day of the robbery, fingered Logo as the killer.
On their way to school one day the next week Richie Gates told Roy that his brother was delivering cakes again for Koszinski’s.
“Is Leberko’s mother still working there?”
“Yeah. Floyd heard her tellin’ a customer that Logo’ll get the chair unless he gets whacked in stir first, like his father. She says her son is already dead to her and it’s like he never even existed. Think she means it or she’s just sayin’ that to make herself not feel bad?”
“Both, maybe,” said Roy.
“I’m sure if somethin’ happened to me,” Richie said, “my mother wouldn’t try to convince herself I’d never been alive. What about yours?”
Gifford’s collection “The Cuban Club,” will be released in paperback this fall with two new stories; this is one of them.
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