from LINCOLN AT MERCY, a novel
Benny. June 12 1964.
First it’s the light and then it’s the dark. Then it’s the light and the dark at the same time. In and out. On and off. The sparks and the curls and sings. Then the dark comes and the hiding man. He is bad. He has the needles and the medicines. Then the light and the sings and the light is shaking. When they are in the room. Him and Alice. The light going up and down and up then the shadows and the leaves and the trees are shaking. The st – steeple is shaking and he is shaking. Benny is shaking. Alice looking like she is scared and putting the spoon in. Benny on the bed Alice putting the spoon in then Alice is crying. Sha- shadows and sha - shaking. The fig tree sha - shaking the pe - pear tree. The people in the st – steeple sha - shaking. Mommy comes. Mommy puts her hands on Benny’s shoulders and she is pushing him. Pushing hard hard down in the bed. Benny on the bed Mommy holding him Alice keeping the spoon in. Alice looking at Benny Alice crying. Mommy saying Alice don’t cry it’s almost over now. He’ll be all right. Mommy saying Alice listen next time you come up to this room you need to be careful don’t let the light in so fast. Too many things all at the same time isn’t good for Benny. Easy does it. That’s what I always say isn’t it. Mommy saying Easy does it easy does it. Always better that way.
She put the kids in the kitchen and then she closed the door. Then she opened the door and Little Jimmy came in. Aunt Patricia said to Little Jimmy, “Make them some supper. There are hamburgers in the refrigerator all ready to fry.”
Then she closed the door.
Then she came back.
“Jimmy—there are buns in the bread drawer. Listen—make sure you keep this door closed. You understand? You know why I’m telling you this, right?”
Little Jimmy said, “Yeah yeah I know.”
Then she closed the door again.
Before they were in the living room. They were sitting on the long sofa that goes SHWOOOOSH! when you sit on it. SHWOOOOSH! Tastes like marshmallows! SHWOOOOSH!
Benny said, “Alice this sofa tastes like marshmallows” and Alice said, “Is that how it feels to you Benny? That’s very, very interesting. Well to me it’s like a bellows. That’s how I think about it. Benny do you know what a bellows is? No, I don’t think you do. How would you? We might use a bellows to make fires in the fireplace if Grandpa would let us make fires there but he won’t. If he did you would know what a bellows is.” Then Alice went away.
They stand up and the marshmallow sofa breathes in. Gets all fat and puffy. Soft and squishy. Like the bread loaf belly.
“Benny don’t squeeze the loaf of bread like that,” Alice said.
“Alice Benny is hungry,” Benny said.
“But it’s not right to put your hands all over it, other people have to eat it too. If you want a piece of bread I’ll cut it for you,” Alice said.
Then Alice said, “Benny, do you know what? Sometimes you say ‘Benny is hungry’ or you say ‘Benny is happy’, or you say ‘Benny is sad’. And then sometimes you say ‘HE is hungry’ or ‘HE is happy’ or ‘HE is sad’. Or you say ‘I’M hungry’ or ‘I’M happy’ or ‘I’M sad’. Do you know that you do that?”
Sometimes Benny is seeing Benny.
Sometimes Benny is feeling Benny not seeing him.
Benny didn’t say.
He is looking for Alice. He is walking in the rooms. He is seeing the pictures.
In front of the marshmallow sofa is a table. It has a swan and two baby swans and a candy dish. They were all sitting in a row. Uncle Jimmy, Little Jimmy. Daddy, Benny. Uncle Charlie, Uncle Pete, Uncle Vince. Brother and Michael were on the floor. Brother and Michael pushed the swans away and they pushed the candy dish away and then they were playing checkers. The checkerboard was in the middle.
Uncle Pete said, “Where’s Paul?”
Michael said, “He’s in the kitchen. Doing his homework with the girls.”
The candy dish was empty all the rounds gone. Every day Benny went to Grandma and he said, “Grandma can Benny have rounds?”
Sometimes Grandma said, “Seee Benny seee. Peegyaty, peegyaty.” And then she gave Benny some rounds. They had different colors.
And sometimes Grandma said, “No chee sunnu karamelleh Benny. No chay nay. Dohmany Benny. Ahspettah dohmany.”
So Benny said, “Daddy can I ask Grandma for rounds?” And Daddy said, “No Benny no. This is not a good time. Grandma is upstairs with Grandpa and Grandpa is very, very sick.”
Michael made the big red button hop-hop on the board. One jump two jumps three!
“Ha! Beat you again!” Michael said. “Ha!”
Uncle Pete said, “Michael, don’t you have any homework?”
“I finished it all,” Michael said.
Benny said, “Alice what is homework?”
And Alice said, “Benny, homework is the reading and writing we have to do after school. When we come home. Because there’s a lot to learn about the world and we can’t learn it all in school.”
Benny said, “Alice I want to go to school with you. When can I?”
Alice said, “Well I don’t know about that Benny. I’ll have to ask Aunt Ella. I don’t think you can come to my school but going to some other school would be a very good thing for you, in my opinion.”
“Bobby what about you?” Daddy said. “Don’t you have homework?”
“We didn’t get any,” Brother said.
“You’re sure about that?” Daddy said.
“Yeah I’m sure,” Brother said. Brother looked at Daddy and his eyes were like asking questions. Brother has big eyes. Brown. Like frying pans. And eyelashes furry.
“You mean to tell me you have five teachers now in that new school of yours—not just one—and not one of them—not one teacher—gave you any homework today.”
“Yeah, for real. Not one,” Brother said. “If you don’t believe me you can call the princ—“
And the doorbell rang!
One!—Two!— Three! Three gold and silver rings!
Four!—Five!—Six! Six gold and silver rings!
“We call them chimes Benny, not rings,” Alice said. “Grandpa and Grandma have a special doorbell that makes those five golden tubes on the wall over there—you see what I’m pointing to there? by the door?—the special doorbell makes those tubes over there tap each other back and forth. You watch what happens when I go outside and ring the doorbell. I’m going out to the front porch now, to ring the doorbell. You stay on the sofa and you watch what the tubes do, okay?”
Daddy opened the door and the doctor came in. He had a big black bag full of medicines. Benny smelled them. He smelled the ice cubes and the stings he felt the hurts in the nose like when Mommy opens the red bottle for cleaning. Like when the cleaners move the mops on the floors. At Pine Haven. When they wash the windows.
The doctor wore a black hat and a black coat and he brought the storm in. Benny felt the storm he saw the clouds. Black curly burly clouds and wind. Wind like knifes.
“Dr. Levy,” Daddy said, “We appreciate you coming out on a night like this. It’s bad out there.“
Daddy and Dr. Levy were shaking hands.
“All part of my job,” Dr. Levy said. “I don’t think your father-in-law had any vote on which night to take a turn. By the way I had to park my car on Mercy, pretty close to the corner. I don’t think there’ll be any police handing out tickets though. Lincoln Avenue is packed solid tonight, cars both sides of the streets. Well—“
“Well just follow me up the stairs,” Daddy said.
Then Daddy and the doctor were going up the stairs. Then Daddy stopped. He looked down at Brother.
Daddy said, “Bobby—you keep an eye on your brother—you understand?”
Brother looked at Benny and Brother said, “Yeah yeah.”
Then Benny said to Brother, “Brother why is Alice in the kitchen? Why not here on the sofa?”
“Probably writing one of her dumb stories,” Brother said.
Little Jimmy closed the door when the doctor came in but still Benny and the uncles were covered in snow. Benny saw snow on the chairs and the sofa. On the mirrors and the magazines. It was cold.“And this is only November,” Uncle Charlie said. “Just imagine what kind of weather we’ll be getting come Christmas.”
Uncle Vince lit a cigarette. Poof! The snow on his arms started melting. The melting snow ran down his sleeves and down his pants and stopped on the carpet. Little shiny bubble glints. Like on the leafs in the morning.
“Charlie, Jimmy, you want a smoke?” Uncle Vince said. “Pete I know you don’t smoke.”
“No thanks Vince, I’m trying to cut back,” Uncle Charlie said.
“I should follow your example,” Uncle Vince said.
Uncle Pete stood up and went to the window. He opened the blinds so he could see. There was snow on the cars. On the street and on the wires. Just like the powder Mommy shakes when we make cookies.
“Shake the canister, Benny,” Mommy said.
Benny was helping Mommy in the kitchen. He was smelling the warm and the little bottles. Red and brown and yellow. Like the perfumes on the table in Mommy’s room. Mommy’s room is yellow.
Benny’s room is blue.
Sometimes Mommy takes the brush and she pushes the icing back and forth on the cookies. Sometimes she takes the canister. “Shake it back and forth just like I do,” Mommy says. “See how the sugar falls out on the cookies? See how pretty? Just like snow, Benny. Like the snow that falls down from heaven.”
Uncle Jimmy shook his head. He was looking down at the floor.“How’s Mom taking this?” Uncle Vince said.
“Not good,” Uncle Charlie said.
Uncle Jimmy was staring at the floor. Then he picked his head up.
“She won’t eat,” Uncle Jimmy said. Then he stared at the floor.
Then the gold and silver rings again! The tubes touching!
Little Jimmy opened the door and Father Anselm came in. He was tall and skinny. His hair was short and yellow and his eyelashes were yellow and they were long. Like a giraffe. Slow slow slow the tubes stopped touching and Father Anselm was shaking hands with Daddy and the uncles. Father Anselm smelling like smoke. Like smoke and flowers.
Then Father Anselm was putting his hands together just like praying. He had long breadstick fingers.
Aunt Patricia came down. Aunt Patricia said “Fath—” and then she stopped and she couldn’t say. Father Anselm put his white breadstick fingers on Aunt Patricia’s head and he was like praying again. Then he let go and Aunt Patricia turned around and she could say again.
Aunt Patricia said to Daddy and the uncles: “You go up now with Father Anselm. I’ll put the kids in the kitchen and close the door.”
Little Jimmy was looking in the cabinets. He found a silver frying pan. Little Jimmy said to Brother, “Is this the pan Aunt Ella uses?”
“No,” Angela said. “She uses the big cast iron. Look in the drawer under the oven.”
Angela and Alice look the same. Except Angela’s hair is short and Alice’s hair is more long. That’s how Benny is knowing Angela and knowing Alice.
Angela closed her book and went to Little Jimmy at the stove. Then they were getting down on their knees on the floor. They looked in the drawer under the oven. They found the big black frying pan Mommy cooks the hamburgers in. Alice and Paul kept on writing. Benny and Michael sat down at the table. Brother went to the cabinet and got the potato chips.
“Who wants some?” Brother said. Then he ripped the bag and he put the chips in a big red bowl. Inside the bag was mirrors.
“Hey you’re gonna spoil your appetites,” Little Jimmy said.
“Aw come on Jimmy!” Brother and Michael said that together.
“Okay but just a few, you hear?” Little Jimmy said. Then Little Jimmy picked up a long skinny green bottle and held it way up in the air and a long yellow twisty rope poured out and went all the way down into the frying pan. Then Little Jimmy turned the knobs on the stove and the little fires popped up. They had blue eyes. They had orange tails.
“You better watch out for those blue and orange fires, Benny,” Mommy said. “Because if you put your fingers in the fires you’ll get a bad burn and it’ll hurt a lot. You understand? I’m going to bring this tray upstairs to Grandma and Grandpa and I want you to stay in that chair. And don’t move. You don’t go near the stove, Benny, you understand? You stay in that chair and don’t you move.”
Mommy goes up and down the steps every day. First she puts the food on the tray, then she puts the pills on, then she takes the tray up the steps.
“Don’t touch the pills on the tray, Benny,” Mommy said. “They’re for Grandma and Grandpa, not for you.”
“Mommy I – I have pills too,” Benny said.
“Yes you do,” Mommy said. “You have lots of pills. But your pills are different. Only Mommy gives you your pills, you understand? The only pills you swallow are the ones that Mommy gives you.”
Mommy takes the tray with the pills and the food. Grandpa eats cream of wheat. Grandma eats toast and eggs. Grandma and Grandpa eat upstairs in the bed. But then Grandpa goes inside the box and Mommy brings Grandma the toast and the eggs and Grandma says, “Nehntee nehntee.”
Grandpa went to the shed. He has a big black machine and he uses it to fix the shoes. Benny went with Grandpa and Alice went with Grandma. To the shed.
In the shed Grandma put the string beans on the table and she took the leafs and the strings off. Sometimes Benny helped Grandma. Alice too. Sometimes Grandma counted the seeds and Alice put them in the envelopes. Then Grandma was saying to Alice and Alice was listening and Alice was not wanting to talk to Benny. “Not now Benny, please,” Alice said. “Grandma is telling me a story and I want to listen.”
So then Benny was helping Grandpa.
Grandpa’s machine is big and black. First you have to plug it in and then it moves. Like a gorillan. If you don’t plug it in it won’t move. Then when you plug it in the wheels and the big dirty belt go round and round. You put the shoes on the belt and they get shiny. You put the tops of the shoes on the belt not the bottoms. If you want them to get shiny. If you have to work on the bottoms then you put the insides of the shoes upside down on the arms. And then you hammer the nails in. You only bang the hammer on the bottom. That’s if you want to fix them. Grandpa hammers the nails and Benny shines the shoes. Then Grandpa gives Benny a quarter. A quarter is twenty-five cents. Grandpa gives Benny a quarter if Benny shines two shoes. Two shoes and a pair is the same.
Benny stayed on the chair and watched the fires. He watched the little blue eyes and the orange tails. Like the little birds in the bushes. Like the blue and orange flowers Grandma has at the fence.
“Angela get a little closer to the fire why don’t you huh?” Little Jimmy said. “You’ll have your mother coming in here and giving me hell.” Then Little Jimmy put a hand on his hip.
Little Jimmy had black pants and they went up high and he had a black skinny belt and it went up high too. It had a shiny buckle on it. Little Jimmy ‘s hair was black and shiny. Flat on the sides and a big curl on top. Like the seashell Alice gave Benny. Alice said, “Benny, hold the seashell up against your ear and tell me what you hear. What do you hear, Benny?” Benny said, “Alice I hear the ocean. Why Alice why? How come the ocean is inside the seashell?”
“So tell me, Angela, Alice—what’s your favorite subject in school?” Little Jimmy said.
“Are you asking me or Angela?“ Alice said.
“Why aren’t you asking me?” Paul said.
“I’m asking Angela first. Then Alice. Then I’ll ask you Mr. Ants-in-the-Pants. Because I always ask the ladies first,” Little Jimmy said.
“I don’t really have a favorite,” Angela said.
“She likes everything,” Michael said. “She’s good at everything too. Alice too. They make me sick. No just kidding.”
“I like everything except for math,” Alice said.
“Alice what is math?” Benny said.
“Benny, you know what math is,” Alice said. “Math is arithmetic. Like what we worked on yesterday. Two plus two equals four. Four plus four equals eight.”
“Actually Alice is good at math, but she would rather do other things,” Angela said.
“Angela get back from the stove,” Little Jimmy said. “How many times do I have to say it?”
“Jimmy believe it or not Angela knows how to cook,” Alice said.
Little Jimmy held the big white plate up. He pushed the hamburgers off and they fell in the frying pan. The hamburgers went SSSZZZZSS!!! SSSZZZZSS!!! SSSZZZZSS!!! They sounded just like snakes!
“Ow! Ow! ” Angela said.
“I just said!” Little Jimmy was yelling. “I told you to stand back!” Little Jimmy turned the knobs fast and the blue and orange fires got small.
Angela was rubbing her arms. Alice and Paul closed their books and put them away. They got the knifes and the forks and they started to set the table. Little Jimmy stood at the stove.
“How many hamburgers does everybody want?”
“Well they’re kinda small, so I think I’ll have three,” Brother said.
“I’ll have ten or twelve,” Michael said.
“Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen.” Benny was counting. “Sixteen. Seventeen. Eighteen. Nineteen. Twenty. Twenty-one twenty-two twenty-three twenty-four! Alice!” Benny said. “I counted twenty-four cars today—that’s a lot!”
“Benny that is a lot,” Alice said. “You’re a really good counter.”
Alice and Benny were sitting on the front porch. Alice was reading her book and Benny was counting all the cars going by. The sun was coming down on Alice’s legs and Benny could see the little hairs glint. The hair on Alice’s head was brown and the hair on Alice’s legs was yellow.
“And it’s still so early,” Alice said. “It’s not even eleven o’clock yet. Yesterday you went all the way up to thirty-five. Do you think you can go up to forty today? Maybe even fifty?”
“Tell you what—“ Little Jimmy said. “Everybody take two and if you still want more after that I’ll make more.”
Then Little Jimmy said: “Okay, Paul—Mr. Professor—we haven’t heard about school from you yet. What subject do you like best?”
“English and religion,” Michael said.
“Who’s talking to you?” Little Jimmy said. “I asked Paul not you. Religion? What’s that all about? You want to be a priest or something?” Little Jimmy said.
Paul looked down at his plate. Then he lifted his head and he said, “You know if there’s any ketchup?”
“You know where the ketchup is,” Alice said. “You’re here almost every day.”
“It’s in the refrigerator,” Michael said. “I want some too.”
“Well then why don’t you get it?” Paul said.
“No you,” Michael said.
Paul got up and went to the refrigerator. Little Jimmy was still standing by the stove.
Little Jimmy said, “Paul, I thought you were so hot to tell me what you liked. Now you’re not saying anything.”
“Leave Paul alone,” Angela said. “Tell us what you want to do instead. Why don’t you want to go to college? Mom says Uncle Jimmy wants you to go but you don’t want to. I thought we were all supposed to go to college. That’s what our mother always says.”
“College? What do I want college for?” Little Jimmy said. “Look it—Aunt Patricia may know what’s good for you and Alice but I know what’s good for Little Jimmy. You kids like to study— I don’t. We got the tavern, I make all the money I want working there, plus one day it’ll all be mine. Plus that little place is a gold mine.”
“I’ll be back in a minute,” Brother said. “I gotta go to the bathroom.”
Then Brother got up and he went to the door and he opened it and all the noise and cries came in like big big waves at the ocean. Like birds and waves at the ocean cries and cries coming in and Little Jimmy yelled: “Bobby Aunt Patricia said to keep the door closed!” It was loud. The cries were coming going round and round like the waves on the sand on the stones when they hit and they hurt. They were hitting Benny‘s ears hurting Benny then Benny heard Mommy Mommy was crying. Aunt Patricia and Aunt Mary and Grandma they were crying. Little Jimmy ran to the door and he closed it.