Fat Louie the Butcher
By Paul Teodo & Tom Myers
Fat Louie the butcher had thick arms. Short and covered with hair. A bloody apron draped over his barrel chest. And a large stomach. His gnarled fingers couldn’t decide which way to go snaking out of his leathery hands. A nose that went about three different ways before it came to a purple veined bulbous stop. I never saw him without an unlit cigar lodged in the corner of his mouth. Maybe 5’8” 230–240. A fucking gorilla. “Spent time in the ring” was the word on the street. In the Bronx before he got to Chicago.
At about 30 he showed up in Grand Crossing where I lived. He opened the shop at 77th and Greenwood. Butcher block tables, saw dust on the floor. Bloody meat hanging off hooks. The whole thing.
He had the cleanest windows I ever seen. Fucking sparkled. Huge pieces of meat hung in those pristine windows and everybody bought from Louie. The smell of garlic, rosemary, and fresh basil drifted onto the street. It lured you in like an herbal specter gently taking your hand guiding you through his doorway. A bell hung over its cracked wooden frame that jingled whenever a customer walked in.
Open at 6, closed at 9. Every fucking day. Except for Sunday. “I go to the Church at 11, eat the pasta at noon, come back, open again at 2.”
He lived alone over the store. A small apartment with a kitchen, a bathroom. a closet for a bedroom, and a tiny room where he balanced an 18 inch Philco on top of a milk crate. Four channels, 2,5,7, and sometimes 9.
His voice sounded like it was dragged through an alley, raspy with a thick accent. His eyes were sunk deep into his face, dark almost black. His eyebrows looked phony. Like they were balls of white and black cotton glued to his forehead aimlessly searching for a place to rest.
His meaty paws were always wrapped around his cleaver. His clothes smelled of recently slaughtered animal. And his black boots crunched the sawdust floor as he moved among the carcasses of cows, lambs, and pigs.
It was 1959. The Sox were in the World Series. Playing the Dodgers. I was 10. My old man was going, I wasn’t. I was pissed, pouty. We owned a deli right off 79th Street and one or our regulars was Daley’s secretary. She had an extra ticket. She asked the old man. Not me.
I wouldn’t go to school that day. Made up a story about a bad gut. The runs. Poured water into the toilet making it sound for real. The old man didn’t buy it. But I got to stay home anyway. Watched the game on TV. Black and white. Brickhouse announcing on the radio. Big Klu our first baseman hit two bombs, and Early Wynn, the Indian, threw a shutout. We smoked em 11-zip.
I deserved to go. The old man went, I shoulda. I was a kid but I knew the score. Daley’s secretary coulda copped a ticket for me. No problem.
So I’m sulking and shit after the game even though we won. My ma had the heart of a lion and the wisdom of a fox. “Pauly, here is $3 go to Louie’s. Get me some flank steak.”
“Ma, I whined.
“I don’t wanna.” I was gonna make her and the old man pay, I’d be a shit, their penance.
“I feel like braciole.” My mother was so fucking smart.
“Braciole?” My eyes lit up. Tender beef pounded paper thin, braised in wine and olive oil, lovingly embracing garlic, cheese, parsley, pancetta, and bread crumbs, simmered in red sauce.
“Now.” She pointed to the door, “Your father will be home soon.”
She won. My foul mood vanished and my stomach rumbled joyfully.
I started walking to Louie’s to get the meat. Through the park, and up Greenwood.
When I got close, I saw Georgie cleaning Louie’s front window talking to himself. In the ’50s Georgie was called the neighborhood retard. He stuttered and drooled. Had a red pockmarked face. Wore baggy pee stained green pants and a white t-shirt two sizes too small. At first you thought he was 13, maybe 14, but when you looked close it was more like 23, maybe 24.
Georgie spotted me coming up the street and he got all happy. I never gave Georgie shit, but the big kids in the neighborhood did. Bullies, assholes. “Pauly, Pauly, my friend!” Georgie shouted. I wanted to crawl under a rock. I mean I’m 10 years old and this kid, even though he never hurt nobody was screamin my name like, well, like a retard.
I didn’t respond. I just wanted to get my flank steak and disappear. Again” Pauly, Pauly, my friend.”
Fuck! He’s talking to me. What if people heard?
Just then outa the corner of my eye I saw the three of them. The bullies. Assholes. “The retard’s friend?!” They screamed.
“Georgie’s buddy!” Screaming.
“Come on guys, he ain’t botherin' nobody,” I said, scared and embarrassed.
“He bothers us, with his piss pants and drool. Bothers us a lot.”
“Just leave him...” I felt the warm liquid run down my face and searing hot pain shoot through my skull from just below my eye socket. The crack sounded like it came from across the street. I dropped to my knees spotting the rock on the ground. It had hit me square in the face. Stars floated in the bright afternoon sun. Georgie terrified. The assholes laughing, “Retard’s buddy, his friend.”
The door to the store swung open. Filling the doorway was Fat Louie, cleaver in hand, bloody apron draping his stomach. Unlit cigar crammed in the side of his mouth.
“You,” he pointed at the bullies with his cigar.” Get the hell out of here.” He stepped towards them. They scattered like flies.
Georgie bent over me, his breath making me nauseous. “Pauly, my friend, are you OK?
I felt a thick fingered hand pulling me up. The smell of meat filled my nose. Without saying a word Louie guided me into his store.
He lifted me onto his butcher block counter, and slapped a piece of cold raw meat onto my face. “This help. Boys, they bullies. I find later. Press.” He grasped my hand in his pressing the raw bloody meat into my eye. Its damp coolness felt like heaven.
In raspy broken English he spoke. “Pauly, you did a good thing. The bully boys no do good thing,”
“They nailed me Louie.” I sobbed.
“Face will heal. They need to live with what they do. You did good. Them, if no change, bad things will happen.” He pressed his hand on mine again, the steak still doing its job. “You see when older. No good to bully.”
“No good to get my face smashed.” I argued, trying to be strong.
He gently pulled my hand from my face. The meat slithered down my shirt. I could feel my eye swell as it closed. He took my bloody face in his hands. “You did a good thing. Georgie needs help sometimes, you give, that is good.” His breath was heavy. His voice solemn. “Now why you come to my store?”
What? I tried to remember. The Sox. The Dodgers. The World Series. Braciole. That’s it. Flank steak. “I came for some flank streak.”
“Ah,” he pulled the cigar from his mouth, “you Momma, she make the braciole?”
“Yeah, my favorite.” Trying to cover my whimpering.
What I could see of his face through my swollen eye broke into a huge smile. He walked slowly to his butcher block table, his feet crunching on his sawdust covered floor. He slammed a piece of meat onto his table and pounded it thin with his mallet. The banging made my head throb. Finished, he methodically wrapped it in brown paper and tied it with white twine.
I reached into my pocket for the $3. He held his hand up. “No bring me a braciole. That is payment.”
“ I will.”
I walked back up Greenwood through the park. I carried our flank steak in the blood stained brown paper that Louie had given me. When I opened the door to our store, my mother was finishing with a customer. Her eyes riveted on my swollen face. She rushed to me. “What happened?”
I could hear Louie’s voice. The voice that sounded like it had been dragged through a fucking alley. I looked at her and smiled handing her the meat.
“I did a good thing.”