The Whales and Elephants Were Happier When
I always want to be jive-talking. No one will explain the context of this locution, yet, looking at it, I know that is what I want to be. I am proud to have used the word "locution" in the previous sentence. It is in the WORD-A-DAY calendar Mother bought me for Christmas. Mother says I ought to be proud of a lot of things. I'm to make a list of the things I'm proud of and to then be proud of the list-making. We are a proud family. We are the tenth American generation, which is particularly amazing. Mother has plotted our family tree on the family room wall.
My name is Benjamin B. Bernard the Third. Some people at school call me the Better Business Bureau. I am very short. I have beady eyes. Of this, I am not proud, nor is Mother.
It's not so much that my eyes are beady, but that they are very small and narrow and that I do not sleep enough, which leads to their reddening. I like to stay up late on my bunk and read from my chapter books, for which I have my very own shelf. Of this, Mother is most certainly proud. She will sometimes lend me books from her collection.
The shelf was provided by my brother Stanley, who is no longer alive. That is how I got the shelf. Of Stanley, we are not to be proud.
My bedroom has a window that looks out over the backyard. We have a very tall fence and atop it a little kitten often sleeps. I sometimes think about climbing the fence.
I am home today and all this week because the school counselor thinks I am unhappy. Mother has elected to remain home with me rather than go off to the office at which she sits for money. Each morning we share toast and coffee. If I am quiet while Mother reads the newspaper I may have my very own tall glass of orange juice. It is not so much the taste but the color of the orange juice that pleases me. After Mother finishes her paper I take it to the recycle bin and stand on the porch with her while she has her smoke. Mother has mentioned that I might learn to carry and light her lighter. Mother is very concerned with useful skills—polishing shoes, for example, or changing the oil in her car.
After her smoke I can gauge how our day will go. I will ask her then, as always, if she might read the elephant story to me. It is a picture book purchased for me by my father, of whom, much like Stanley, we are not proud. Father still lives somewhere in town, where he, like Mother, is paid to sit quietly in an office.
When I ask today, this is Mother's answer: "I think we've had quite enough of that book haven't we, Benjamin?"
I know not to respond.
"Haven't we Benjamin?"
"What was that?"
"Now Benjamin, I've been saving something for just such a time as this."
I follow Mother upstairs. Today she wears her very pale lace dress which gathers around her ankles as she steps. I know I need only step on the hem to cause her to fall. When I was very young Mother would often say, "Mind my hem, Benjamin." If I mistakenly trod upon it I was clouted. As a sort of game I like to put my feet as close to the hem as possible without actually touching it. If Mother were to fall I would be prosecuted in a court of law.
Mother has pulled down the ladder that leads up to the attic and begun to climb it. "Come along Benjamin," she says.
She is carefully to hold her hem away from her feet. I am not good at climbing ladders but follow clumsily anyway.
"Watch your feet, Benjamin," Mother says.
The attic is dusty. At either end there is a small round window through which I can see small pieces of sky. There is a narrow path between neatly stacked cartons—some labeled BENJAMIN, others STANLEY. Mother pulls down and opens a carton labeled STANLEY.
"Come here," she says.
As she pulls the carton flaps apart I close my eyes. If I open my eyes I will see little Stanley parts. Perhaps a foot or hand, a lung, an eye—carefully wrapped in tissue paper.
"What do you think?" Mother asks. Then, "Open your eyes, little man, and tell me what you think."
Within in the box, nestled in tissue, a thin red tie.
"Here," Mother says, running the tie through my collar, "let me knot this." She knots it and tightens it and stuffs its tail between my shirt buttons. "There, now. Doesn't that look dapper?"
"I don't know."
"Shall we read in the family room?"
Mother likes to sit on the loveseat beneath the family tree. I often lie upon the daybed near the window where there's plenty of room to set out a dozen books. My new tie feels tight against my throat but any attempts to loosen it seem only to backfire. There's a mirror on the far wall and in it I can see that my tie is crooked. That my tie was Stanley's tie should cause me much shame but it does not. I pull my books from beneath the daybed. I set aside my chapter books and place the elephant and whale books before me.
"Aren't you a too old for those books, Benjamin?"
I don't answer.
"Why aren't we proud of your father, Benjamin?"
"I don't know."
"Why don't you take out one of your chapter books?"
"In a minute."
Mother silently pages through her magazine. I open my books and compare the pictures of the elephants to the pictures of the whales. It is as though the same person drew both pictures. The whales are bigger than the elephants but I would rather ride an elephant.
Mother stands, strides toward me, and snatches up my books.
"You're not to read these anymore," Mother says.
"Do you understand me?" she wants to know.
"I may have to discard them," she muses.
She slides the books under her arm and heads into the kitchen.
There is a horrendous sound so I go upstairs and climb carefully the ladder to the attic. The pieces of sky are still visible through the two round windows. Not that I expected them not to be. I pull down the STANLEY cartons and line them up.
"Benjamin," Mother calls from downstairs.
I open each STANLEY carton carefully, making certain to fold the flaps down flatly. One of these cartons will have Stanley pieces, or many of them will, hidden beneath toys or old sweaters. Once I find the pieces I want I'll bring them down the ladder to the kitchen where I can put them with the elephants and whales, or if the elephants and whales have been destroyed, I may then destroy the Stanley pieces also. There are many cartons and in the cartons there may be many pieces of Stanley and in the pieces of Stanley there may be other pieces of other things. The problem is to find all of pieces and then to know what to do with them.
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