The Bad Guy



Jerome Turken

Katz’s meat slicer had been sitting on Uncle Willy’s work table for three days without him taking even one tool off the wall to start on it, and when I came in today he was pacing in front of it like he was going to wear out the floor.  Or else his shoes.

“What’s the matter, Uncle Willy?” I said.

It was like he didn’t even hear me.  So I stepped in front of him and asked him again.  He just walked around me like I was a pole, or something.

“Oh‑oh,” Arnie said, smiling over his three pots of geraniums.  “Willy’s doing some fancy head work.”

“Head work?” I said. “What’s head work?”

Arnie tapped the side of his head. “Right up here.  The noodle.”  He kept right on smiling, which convinced me it couldn’t be too serious.  Arnie was Uncle Willy’s helper, so I figured he ought to know.  What he called head work must be some trouble or irritation or something that Uncle Willy had to get out of his system, like mom trying to balance her check book every month, or something.

I went to the back room to get rid of my books and change into my overalls.  When I came back out and took another look at Uncle Willy I didn’t see how I could have interrupted him in the first place.  He wasn’t just pacing.  His eyes were glistening without movement, like wet glass.  The laugh lines around his mouth were gone.  Not gone, they had the wrong shape.  Instead of raying out and circling they drooped like a weeping willow.  I don’t know about head work, but he sure was doing body work.  All 110 pounds of him was knot-tight.  He was going though all kinds of peculiar movements: stopping short, bouncing on his toes, slapping his thighs.  And he kept nodding then squinching his brows and shaking his head, then nodding again, just as if there was a little voice inside his head he was having an argument with.  That got me worried again.  Arnie saw it.

“Aah, you give me a pain in the neck,” he said. “Nothing’s never wrong with a little head work, don’t you know that by now?  It gets him going.  Come on, let’s play some casino.”  From a loop in his overalls he unclipped his enormous key ring with about a hundred keys.  He selected the right one and opened the supply cabinet and took a handful of nails from one of the kegs and counted out twenty‑four each.  “Go ahead, you deal,” he said. “Let’s see who gives who a shellacking.  Well?  What are you waiting for?  The cards ain’t going to jump up and deal themselves.”  And we started playing for two nails a game.

About four o’clock Katz walked in.  “How’s my good friend Willy?” he said.

Uncle Willy didn’t answer him either.  Katz didn’t seem to mind; or maybe he was too busy beaming at his meat slicer on Uncle Willy’s work table to notice.  He ducked his way over to it as if he were avoiding imaginary obstacles hanging from the ceiling.  He was over six feet tall and had a thick head of black hair combed straight back without a part.  His nose looked smashed like an old prizefighter’s and his jaw stuck out so far that his lower lip almost covered the top one.  But as tough as he looked, he had a reputation for having a heart of gold and never arguing.  He owned a dely on Riverdale Avenue and saved the ends of his salami and corned beef and his day‑old bread for certain poor families in the neighborhood.  He looked at his meat slicer with a big smile on his face.

“Oh boy, I see you finished it already, eh, Willy boy?” he said.  “Excellent!  How does it work now, good?”  He turned to Uncle Willy.  “Willy, it works good now?  I hope it works good now.”

Uncle Willy just kept on pacing like he didn’t hear Katz either.  Katz went over and fell in with Uncle Willy’s pacing, stooping to look into his face and trying to follow his movement, but he always seemed to be going in the opposite direction, like the tail of a flapping kite. “Willy, it works good now?”  He must have figured that Uncle Willy couldn’t hear so good because that time he said it twice as loud as his normally loud voice.  “Because we got a big weekend coming up, you know.  You hear what I’m saying, Willy?” He finally stopped following Uncle Willy and just stood there watching him for about ten seconds.  Then he turned to Arnie and me.  “What’s the matter with him?”

“Who said anything’s the matter with him?” Arnie said.  He tapped his head. “He’s just putting in his head work.”

“Head work, eh?”  Katz’s leg began jerking at the knee and his eyes rolled like he was going to faint, but somehow that smile never left his face. “So in other words you’re trying to tell me Willy didn’t even start on my meat slicer yet, is that what you’re trying to tell me?  Head work comes before hand work, eh?” He looked at Uncle Willy again. “How much time you going to need for your head work, Willy?  Another couple of hours maybe?”

Uncle Willy didn’t even seem to be aware that Katz was present.  Katz turned to Arnie and me again and glanced back and forth between us, still smiling.  If he had any anger at all in him it showed up in his leg, which kept on speeding up until it was jerking about five times a second.

“What is he, sick or something?” he said, ducking his way over to us.

“What are you deaf, or something?” Arnie said.  “What’s the matter with you?  Your meat slicer just needs a little head work, how many times do I have to tell you?”

Katz’s smile finally went sour.  “All right, all right, that sounds reasonable,” he said.  “I’m not arguing with you.  My meat slicer needs a little head work. Fine.  But it just so happens my delicatessen needs a little meat slicer work for my weekend, so where do we go from here?”  He watched Uncle Willy a while then leaned over to me.  “It looks like he went and went to Never‑Never Land, if you ask me.  On a Thursday he goes and goes to Never‑Never Land on me.”  Then he called over to Uncle Willy as if Uncle Willy were ten miles away. “HEY, WILLY!  IS SOMETHING WRONG!”

“Jeez, look at this guy,” Arnie said.  He had put his fingers in his ears and now took them out to open the enormous safety pin that kept his back pocket closed and took out his record book and started marking Katz down.  Katz watched with a funny look of hope on his face.

“What’s he writing?” he said.

“That you’re here,” I said.

“I can use someone to tell me where I am,” Katz said.  “Listen, here’s something else to write down.  If Willy don’t get me my meat slicer for my weekend I’m dead.  You know what dead means?  Like in a cemetery.”  He started leaving but paused at the door to take one last look at Uncle Willy.  “So it better be ready when I come back tomorrow, Willy.  Because tomorrow’s Friday already, don’t forget.”  He stood there a while waiting for some sign of encouragement, then added: “I’m a patient man, but there’s something you should know.  When my patience gets used up I become a fighter.”  He made a fist, then opened it and put his palm on his forehead.  If anything was going to get used up I was sure it was going to be his leg, because he was putting on a virtuoso performance with it now.  “All right, I’ll be back tomorrow to pick it up.  Right, Willy?  Tomorrow for sure, Willy. Right?”  He raised a forefinger.  “Tomorrow.”  And he turned and left finally.

Just when I was beginning to get used to Uncle Willy’s head work Katz had to get me worried all over again with that Never‑Never Land of his.  Maybe he was right, because now Uncle Willy seemed to be getting worse.  His movements were getting more sudden and more frequent; and that argument he was having with that voice in his head was getting livelier.  When I left at seven‑thirty that evening it felt like I was deserting him.

“Aah, don’t worry too much,” Arnie said.  “A little head work never killed no one.”

The next morning I thought of playing hooky and going straight to Uncle Willy.  I didn’t know what kind of fighting Katz had in mind but I wanted to be there when he did it.  But I went to school, and then all I could do was sit at my desk and worry.  By 9:30 my mind was made up to get sick and get sent to Uncle Willy.  Right after milk and crackers I slumped forward with my hand on my stomach and groaned.

“What is it, Mark?” Mrs. Tannenbaum said.

“I’m nauseous,” I said.

“How nauseous?”

“Like I’m going to throw up any minute.”

“Bernard, accompany Mark to the boys’ room,” Mrs. Tannenbaum said. “I’m notifying Mr. Monteleone.”  Mr. Monteleone was the Assistant Principal.

In the boys’ room I went into a booth and sat there and waited for Mr. Monteleone.  When he showed up I put my finger down my throat and my up came my milk and crackers.

“We’re throwing up, eh?” Mr. Monteleone said.  “Take your time, Mark.”  Three seconds later he said, “How are we doing now, Mark?”

“I’m still nauseous.”

“All right, just relax and take your time,” Mr. Monteleone said.  “No rush.”  Three seconds later he said, “Come on out and wash up.  I already got in touch with your mother.  I’ll have someone take you to your uncle.”

“Can’t I just go there myself?” I said weakly.

“No you cannot,” Mr. Monteleone said.  “What if something happens to you?  You’re the school’s responsibility until three o’clock, you know.”

When we got up to the office my books and jacket were already in the waiting room.

“I suppose I ought to call your uncle to let him know you’re coming,” Mr. Monteleone said, “but your mother didn’t list his phone number on this card.  Do you know it?”

“My Uncle doesn’t believe in telephones,” I said.

“He doesn’t believe in telephones?” Mr. Monteleone said.  “I see.”  He wrote Uncle Willy’s name and address on a piece of paper and called his Mrs. Ganz, his secretary, into his office and asked her to take me there.  She put on a sour face but went to the closet and got her coat.  The whole five blocks she kept mumbling about all the extra work Mr. Monteleone gave her. When we got to Uncle Willy’s store she took another look at the paper Mr. Monteleone had given her.

“This is a store,” she said.

“My uncle lives here.”

“In the store?  What is he, a Gypsy?”

Something was still going on with Uncle Willy, but it wasn’t the same as yesterday.  Now he was sitting on his stool glaring at Katz’s meat slicer like it was his worst enemy.  Arnie was still smiling, though.

“Which one is your uncle?” Mrs. Ganz said.

“Him,” I said, pointing Uncle Willy out.

“He doesn’t seem to be too concerned about you,” Mrs. Ganz said.  “Isn’t he aware we’re here?”  She looked at the piece of paper that Mr. Monteleone had given her with Uncle Willy’s name and address on it.  “Excuse me,” she said.  “Are you William Weinstein?”  Then she looked at me.  “Why doesn’t he answer?  What’s wrong with him?  What’s he so angry about?”

“That’s how he looks when he’s busy working something out,” I said.

“Well I happen to be busy too,” Mrs. Ganz said.  “I can’t spend all day here.  Can’t he stop a minute and give us some attention?  Where’s his courtesy?”  She called over to Uncle Willy.  “Your nephew got sick in school, Mr. Weinstein. Aren’t you concerned?”  She looked at me again.  “This looks fishy.  Are you sure he’s your uncle?”

“Sure he’s his uncle,” Arnie said.

“Who’s he?” Mrs. Ganz said.

“My uncle’s helper,” I said.

“Who are you?” Arnie said.

“Mrs. Ganz from the school,” Mrs. Ganz said.  “What’s the difference?”

Arnie took his record book out and started writing her down.

“What’s he writing there?” Mrs. Ganz said.

“That you’re here,” I said.

“That I’m here?” Mrs. Ganz said.  “What is he doing, taking attendance?  I never saw anything like this in all my life.  If that man’s really your uncle why isn’t he paying attention?”

“He’s doing his eye work,” Arnie said.

“Eye work?” Mrs. Ganz said.  “What do you mean, eye work?”

“What comes after head work.” Arnie said.

“Oh boy,” Mrs. Ganz said.  She looked at Uncle Willy again a few seconds.  “I don’t like the looks of this.  No sir, I certainly don’t like the looks of this.”  She kept shaking her head.  “What do I do now?”  She stood there thinking for about half a minute, then came to a decision.  “Well, Mr.  Monteleone told me to bring you here, so I brought you here.  If something further happens it’s not my responsibility.  I don’t get paid to do social work.”  She looked at me again.  “How do you feel now?”

“About the same,” I said.

“Eat a lot of soup,” she said.  She took another look around.  “Boy, this is something.”  Then she left.

“What are you, sick?” Arnie said.

“I’m okay now,” I said.  I looked at Uncle Willy glaring at that meat slicer.  His 110 pound body was knot‑tight, his hands clawed like he was ready to grab it by the throat and choke it to death.  First head work and now eye work, like it was the next step in some procedure.

“What are you waiting for?” Arnie said.  “Go back and change your clothes, for crissake.”

Just before noon Katz came back.  He went ducking over to Uncle Willy again.

“How’s my good friend Willy today?” he said.  “Did he have a good night’s sleep?”  Which was something it sure looked like he didn’t get.  He was all bug‑eyed and his face was as pale as dough; but he was still smiling.

“Hey, how’s the champ feeling today?”  He stuck his face right in front of Uncle Willy’s and looked into his eyes just like you’d look into a baby’s eyes you were tickling around with.  After about ten seconds his smile went off and on went his leg again, right into the fast movement.  He turned to Arnie and me.  “Why is he looking at my meat slicer like that?  What is he, angry at it?”

“He’s putting in some eye work on it,” Arnie said.

“He’s putting in eye work on it.”  Katz looked at Arnie a moment. “Eye work, I see.  You know what I think?  I think I ought to put some eye work on my meat slicer myself.  I think I ought to take it and see if I can get it fixed someplace else.”  He looked at Uncle Willy again.  “All right, Willy, so you didn’t fix it this time.  So what?   So maybe I’ll just bring it back to the dealer.  Maybe they’ll give me another one on loan for my weekend, you know what I mean?”  He tried to smile again but his face couldn’t make it this time.  “Aah, come on, Willy, let it go,” he said, like Uncle Willy was holding on to his meat slicer with his eyes.  He made a motion to reach for it but his hands stopped just short of touching it.  “What do I have to do to talk to him?” he said, ducking his way over to us again.

“Jeez, you must be crazy,” Arnie said.  “You can’t even talk to him when he’s doing his head work, so how do you expect to talk to him when he’s doing his eye work?”

“He can stop his eye work minute, can’t he?” Katz said.  “What’s stopping him from stopping a minute?  It’s my meat slicer he’ll be stopping on, ain’t it?”

“Will you take a look at this guy?” Arnie said.

“All right, I see it’s no use talking,” Katz said. “So I’ll be back later.  But let me tell you something.  Under no circumstances do I go another day without a meat slicer. You see this vein in my neck?  It’s sticking out.  When that vein sticks out I get stubborn.”  He left thumping his temple with his finger, increasing the force until it almost sounded like a bongo drum.

Arnie got the cards, but I couldn’t concentrate on casino because I was beginning to agree with Katz.  Because Uncle Willy looked just about ready for the loony bin, sitting there bad‑eyeing that meat slicer as if it was not only his enemy but human.  He was still doing it when I went home to call mom around a quarter to three to put her mind at ease.

“I just called to tell you I feel much better,” I said.  “In case you were worried.  It must have been something I ate.”

“I’ll be home at four,” mom said.

“I’m telling you, I’m all right now.”

“Are you sure?”

“I ought to know how I feel.”

“All right, I’ll be home at five‑thirty as usual.  Just take it easy.  Don’t go running around.”

When I got back Uncle Willy was still glaring at that meat slicer the same as before, but there was some kind of change in Arnie now, like he went into glee, or something. He was looking at Uncle Willy with his teeth clenched and his head squeezed into his shoulders, like a kid waiting for a cherry bomb to go off.  The only difference I could see in Uncle Willy was, he had a socket wrench in his hand now.  But as I kept watching him it began to appear as though his whole body was expanding right in front of my eyes.  He was slowly raising his hand with the socket wrench like he was working against a giant spring.  Then he went off.  He catapulted off his stool and flew at that first bolt, cracking it loose and turning it off so fast that it was like I remembered it before it even happened.  Then he started taking that meat slicer apart like if there was a world’s record for it he was going to cut it right in half, handling his tools with such speed that he himself resembled a machine.  Suddenly he froze and stood there gawking into the meat slicer like he had just come across a rat hidden in there, or something.  He yanked whatever it was out and flung it to the floor and grabbed a hammer and whacked it with such force that he himself came clear off the floor when the hammer struck.

Arnie started bleating like a sheep; that was his laugh.  “He got it!” he yelled.  “Yessir, he got it!”

“Got what?” I said. “What did he get?”  I heard the clinking sound of the hammer connecting but I couldn’t make out what it looked like; it wasn’t staying in one place long enough.  It was flying from one end of the store to the other with each whack Uncle Willy gave it, and finally ended up underneath the tool cabinet.  Uncle Willy was there with his hammer cocked and for a moment I thought he was going to smash the whole tool cabinet apart to get to it.  His hand made two little flicks forward, then he came to a dead stop, exactly like a toy when the spring winds down.  He slowly subsided right back down to his normal size, then hung the hammer back on the wall and picked some metal out of his supply rack and chucked it into his lathe and started turning it down.

Arnie already had the broom in his hands.  He got on his elbows in front of the tool cabinet and swept out the thing that Uncle Willy had just beat the daylights out of.  It was a grimy, pear‑shaped piece of metal plate with a rod about six inches long extending from the flatter side.  It even looked like a rat.  Arnie picked it up and held it daintily at the end of the rod with two fingers, just like you’d hold a dead one by the tip of the tail.

“This is the bad guy,” he said, handing it to me.

It was all dented and bent.  I tried to take hold of it at the exact same spot where Arnie’s fingers were gripping it, like all the rest of it were contaminated, or something, but my hand was shaking too much and it fell to the floor. Arnie was right down after it, grabbing it again as if it might escape if he weren’t fast enough.  He picked it up and held it out to me again, but I didn’t try to take it this time.  I just kept looking at it, wondering what the hell was so bad about it.

“This is the worst bad guy Willy ever caught,” Arnie said.  “No doubt about it.”  He opened the padlock on an enormous drawer at the bottom of his table. “This is the bad guy drawer,” he said, pulling it open just enough to get the bad guy in, then closed it and put the lock back on.   He transferred his three pots of geraniums from his table to the window, then went over to Uncle Willy’s work bench and gathered all the parts that Uncle Willy had just taken off of Katz’s’ meat slicer and carried them back to his table and we started cleaning them with benzene.  Pretty soon all the available space on the table was covered with cleaned parts.

About an hour later Katz showed up again.  He went ducking right over to Uncle Willy with a severe look on his face that somehow transformed into a smile by the time he got to him and started right from scratch.  He even used the same words.

“How’s my old friend, Willy?  Did he have a good night’s sleep?”  For a second I actually thought it was tomorrow.

Whatever kind of work Uncle Willy was doing now it still didn’t include talking.

“What did you do with my meat slicer, Willy?” Katz said.  Then he looked at Arnie.  “What did Willy do with my meat slicer?”

“Here it is,” Arnie said, pointing from one end of his table to the other.

Katz looked at the conglomeration of parts on the table for a few seconds, pouting and flattening his lips like he was doping something out or coming to some conclusion. “I see,” he said finally. “It’s in all those places, eh?  I see.  Well, maybe you can tell me if my meat slicer‑‑“ and he spread his arms across the width of the table “‑‑is going to come together‑‑“ and he brought his palms together like he was sweeping the parts in “‑‑for my weekend.”

“Phshew, are you dumb!” Arnie said.  “Certainly they’re going to come together for your weekend.  What do you think is going on here?  Can’t you see Willy found the bad guy?”

“Found who?”

Arnie looked at me, shaking his head and smiling. “This guy must come from Oshkosh or somewhere.”

“What are you talking about?” Katz said.  “What bad guy?”                     “Wshhhoo!”  Arnie put on his smiling exasperation.  “I’m telling you, it’s getting harder and harder every day.  The one that was hiding in your meat slicer.  What bad guy do you think?”

Up started Katz’s leg again.  “A bad guy was hiding in my meat slicer, eh.”  Somehow it looked like he was smiling and crying at the same time.

“That’s right, Katz,” Arnie said.  “You got it.”

“So what did Willy do with him?” Katz said.

“He knocked the bejeesus out of him,” Arnie said. “You want to see him?”

“Why not?” Katz said. “He was hiding in my meat slicer, wasn’t he?”

Arnie unlocked the bad guy drawer and took the bad guy out and held it up in front of Katz by the tip of the tail again.

“That’s the bad guy, eh?” Katz said.

“That’s him in person,” Arnie said.

“I can’t identify him,” Katz said.  “You sure he came out of my meat slicer?”

“What other meat slicer did he come out of?”  Arnie said.  “Don’t worry about it.  Willy’ll put a good guy in there to take his place.”

“I see,” Katz said.  He ducked over to Uncle Willy. “Is that the end of my weekend, Willy?”  It was like he was talking to a wall.  Uncle Willy didn’t even look up.  Katz raised a forefinger like he was going to make a point. “All right,” he said. “It’s time to stop talking and get stubborn.”  And then he just walked out, like if he was going to get stubborn he was going to do it somewhere else.

Before leaving that night I asked Arnie if he thought Uncle Willy would get the good guy done and get Katz his damn meat slicer by tomorrow morning for his weekend.  He gave me his bleating laugh.

“What a stupid question,” he said.

I got home a little after mom.

“How do you feel now?” she said.

“A lot better.”

At supper she said: “Slowdown.  You want to throw up again?”

“Well, I didn’t eat lunch,” I said.

I was in Uncle Willy’s store at 8 AM the next morning, Saturday.  Everything was back to normal.  Katz’s meat slicer was gone and Arnie’s three pots of geraniums were back on his table and Uncle Willy’s laugh lines were back in his face.

“Did you finish it?” I asked him.

He didn’t look up from the sewing machine he was working on.  “Ask Arnie,” he said.

“Did he finish it?”

“What kind of question is that?” Arnie said.

Evidence that he did showed up about one o’clock that afternoon in the form of Julio, Katz’s dishwasher, carrying a bagful of hot dogs, corned beef sandwiches, french fries and sodas.

“It’s all right,” Julio said.  “No money.”

From then on he appeared every Saturday about the same time.  One day about a month later Katz himself showed up.

“My Julio is missing in action today,” he said.  “So I came myself.  How’s my good friend, Willy?”

“Fine,” Uncle Willy said.  “How’s the meat slicer doing?”

“Beautiful, Willy, absolutely beautiful,” Katz said.  He put the food on Arnie’s table and winked.  “You should see it.  It’s my sweetheart.  Talk about slicing fast and thin.”  He took a corned beef sandwich from the bag and opened it. “Look at that.  That’s what the customer wants.  He wants to see a lot of pieces dropping off the slicer.  He knows if they’re thin?”  He stuck his mouth close to my ear like he was telling me a secret.  “My weekend’s a pleasure now.  I’m doing more business with less meat, believe it or not by Ripley.  All right, let me get back before the lovely lady calls the marines out after me.”  He looked at Arnie.  “What did they do with the bad guy, give him life?  Don’t let him escape, you hear?”

“Look at this guy,” Arnie said.