By Koa Beck
Benton had been named for the uncle he’d never met. Growing up there’d only been one photo of him, the uncle: a single ghostly face in the oval frame where the two walls met in the dining room, removed and set away from the mantel of family portraits that served as the crux of the house. His nose, downturned with the shadow of the camera, bore a faint resemblance to that of Benton’s mother.
Benton had been informed of his namesake at four years old, while following his mother around in perpetual memorization of the family tree. He had just begun holding wooden blocks in his hand, assigning them an identity and placement. The red “R” was his father; the blue “L” his mother. But his mother was one of three blue blocks that also included Aunt Lorrie, his mother’s sister.
“You have one of those,” his mother knelt down and picked up one of the blues. “You have a sister too.”
She had explained that she and Lorrie had been children together, just like he and Isa, and that they came from the same parents too. “Your grandparents,” she fluffed his hair.
“But who is this block?” he pulled another blue from the trinity.
“This one,” she put her face in her palm, “this one was born, but is no longer alive.” Her knees came down beside his. “This one died. He was my brother.”
Some years later the story broadened. She was at the sink and he had his arms wrapped around her leg. He could hear the running water, a sound he was not quite tall enough to see. Her brother Benton had been sick, she said, her hands disappearing into the basin. That’s how he had died.
“When he was a little boy like me?” He moved closer and placed his feet beside hers.
“No,” she turned off the faucet and shook the water from her hands, “he was more grown up than you.”
That was when Benton started to take his stuffed teddy bears and play under the photograph, often peering up at the portrait for signs of illness. He only knew of his own wicked coughs—coughs that kept his mother up with him in the night, with piles of Kleenex and a thermometer that made her eyebrows furrow.
With his hands to the wheels of his various mini automobiles, he wondered what a cough looked like in pictures. What does a fever look like when somebody holds up a camera?
“It was a different type of illness,” his mother said, cutting the meat for him on his plate.
His father’s eyes shot across the table. “A disease.”
“What kind of disease?” Benton forked his fraying chicken.
He saw his mother’s mouth open, a sentence forming just at her teeth. But with a shake of his father’s head, it dissolved.
The topic moved elsewhere and Benton was left sitting at the table insisting, “what disease?” his utensil motionless in his hand.
The mention of Benton could, at times, divide a conversation, his name suddenly not his name at all. The decibel of his mother’s voice would drop and the rest of her food would go untouched. Her hands would come together in a bridge over her nose and she would drift. There was a code with which they spoke of his namesake, forever lingering over words like “nice,” “sensitive,” and “gentle.”
“Oh,” she could sometimes begin, her voice going slight, “you looked so much like Benton just then.” Creases came to her eyelids. She would reach for her wine glass and then resolve to leave it half full, excusing herself to sit on the back steps with no coat.
In the sixth grade, Benton had a school project that required a family tree. At the dining room table, he had drawn the boxes with a ruler, carefully penning the names of his aunt and mother. When he got to the third box, he wrote his name as if it were his own. He needed to know the year Benton had died.
“Sometime in the 1980s,” she recited as she folded the bathroom towels. She pulled another fresh yellow hand towel from the basket and angled the fabric on her lap. “I forget the exact year now. I want to say 1987.” She reached beside his socks for another yellow washcloth.
“How long was he sick?”
“A while. I remember him being in and out of hospitals.” She adjusted the clip at the top of her hair. “Doctors couldn’t pinpoint it. Always diagnosing him with something else. What is this for again?”
“My family tree project.”
“Just put down pneumonia. That was the official cause.”
When Benton stood before his class to present on the family tree, he recited a little story about each family member as the assignment instructed. His mother had liked books and stories when she was a little girl. His father had originally wanted to be a bus driver. His Uncle Benton was sick and then died. But when his teacher opened the floor for questions, a girl in the front row said that grownups didn’t die from pneumonia.
“Only babies and old people.” She folded her arms. “My mom’s a doctor.”
Benton felt his face start to grow warm, a single strand of something from home somehow present in this classroom. His teacher interrupted, a look of knowing in her eyes, as she encouraged everyone to clap and thank Benton for sharing his family.
“It was very nice,” she ushered him to his seat, his cheeks visibly flushing.
Benton’s mother touched his wrist outside the school gate and asked him how his project went.
“It was fine,” he said, following her to the parked car. Benton’s mother always drove to his grandparents’ house after fights with his father. She would always make sure he was fastened in tightly and sped all the way there, taking neighborhood roads that she said she had memorized as a girl.
Inside, his grandfather pulled him onto his lap and showed him maps of rivers in neighboring states—blue streams that paralleled mountains and large stretches of green.
“Look here,” his grandfather pulled his magnifying glass from his desk drawer and together they followed the roads deeper into the Midwest. He heard his grandmother in the threshold. She said that she had some angel food cake for him. And, like many times before, Benton ate while his mother and grandmother went in the other room, sometimes shutting the door behind them.
Benton had never heard his grandparents reference a third child. Their little house in the next town kept a running timeline of the same two childhood faces. His mother and her sister, an overlapping rendition of the same pronounced nose and jaw, repeated over and over again all down the corridors and the living room in an almost alternating staccato, the climax was photographs of their college graduation on the fireplace mantel.
On the long drive back home with the windows down, the rushing air forcing him to talk loudly, Benton asked where his uncle was in those hallways.
“There are photos of him,” his mother said. “They’re in the attic under one of my scrapbooks. I saved them.” He imagined her rescuing the pictures, boney and confused, wearing the denim cut-offs that so often dotted her childhood photographs. Her hands moving over the trash with chipped nail polish, pulling out the boxes that her parents had said were no longer appropriate for the home.
“Nowhere to hang them, so they have nowhere to be,” she quoted her father as she rounded the steering wheel. It had been painful for them to lose their eldest child, she said. Her mother thought she would stop crying if his face was no longer beside her bookshelves and along the halls. But she simply stared at where the photos had been, the faint lines on the white walls giving her stomachaches that allowed her to hide in the bedroom.
Her brother hadn’t had a happy childhood.
“It wasn’t like what Lorrie and I had.” With neighbors telling them what cute little girls they were and how they would both grow up to be such gorgeous young ladies. They had been invited into every home, helped by every teacher, and loved by virtually all the other children.
But Benton was so visibly different, so painfully unusual that she would pray for him by the large window at the front of the house.
“He would always leave for school before me and I would get down on my knees and watch him walk up the driveway. I would ask the Lord to protect my brother because I knew his life was harder.”
She said that’s why he left home so young. Why she woke up one morning and couldn’t find him in any rooms in the house. Her parents wouldn’t say his name until they started to get letters from a hospital in New York City. Even then, it was uttered only in whispers. Even when they finally told her and Lorrie that he had died.
That’s why she named him Benton, she said. So that she and her parents could say his name again at a volume that everyone could hear. Benton’s mother said that, even now, she dreamed of a house where she could display all of her brother’s photos. Where she could hang them in new frames and stare at them all afternoon. But after she had married Benton’s father, he allowed her to only have one photo in the living room, a ways away from the others.
“I still dream about that house,” she said as they pulled slowly into the driveway. “One day, I’ll have it.”
His father had been waiting on the porch, his arms folded. His mother didn’t say anything as she passed him by, running straight to her eldest daughter who wanted to know why dinner was taking so long.
Benton’s father had corrected him since he was a boy. Some of his earliest memories were of his father barking at him from the back porch not to stand a certain way, or to walk “like that.” “Don’t say that to him,” his mother usually interjected, a watering pail in her hand. “He doesn’t know what you’re talking about.”
“All the better,” his father often said, turning another newspaper page or feeling his pockets for a lighter.
When Benton was five years old, his mother instructed him to take up the hose and fill the pails for watering. She had smiled as she ran back to the house, chasing the sound of the ringing phone, her feet bare.
He remembered only a sharp shove and then falling, the realization coming afterward that his sister had pushed him and he tumbled somewhere by the sprinklers. His mother came running to him with a single shriek. There had been blood on his shirt and a sting to his head as she berated his sister.
“Why would you do that? ” she said over and over again, Isa eventually crying into her blouse.
“I wanted the hose!” she garbled through tears, her face dirty. “I wanted the hose! You never give me the hose!”
“Go in the house!” his mother yelled, scooping him up into her chest. She had carried him all the way to the bathroom, picking through an assortment of ointments as she patched white strips over his forehead.
“Stop babying him,” his father sounded from just outside the bathroom. “A tumble with his sister won’t kill him. If anything it might toughen him up.”
“It may scar,” she swept his face with her hand.
“So what if it does? I don’t expect boys to win beauty contests.”
He stomped off, retiring to the corner of the house that was solely his own. Benton liked to play with Jonathan best but he couldn’t quite say why. Jonathan wasn’t a particularly strong baseball player and he didn’t even like comic books. Their mothers spoke regularly, Benton’s mother visibly smiling as she said, “oh, hi, Luanne.” They waved to one another on the playground and seemed to always be laughing.
The same sweaters and blouses regularly appeared on both women, the garments being ferried back and forth with thank-you notes. Sometimes, Benton’s mother would quickly write out a card for Luanne and give it to Benton if he was going to Jonathan’s house.
“This is for Luanne,” she would say, kissing his face. “You make sure she gets it. Don’t forget it in your backpack like last time.”
And so he would dutifully walk with the white envelope, careful not to smudge it as Jonathan ripped open the door and invited him inside. Together they would run up the carpeted steps and barricade themselves in Jonathan’s room, the light outside fading until Luanne knocked on the door and asked if Benton would like to spend the night.
Benton never touched Jonathan while he was sleeping. He thought that would be rude.
“Now, you never touch someone who doesn’t want to be touched,” his mother told him a number of times as his sister squealed. “That’s the mark of a true savage.”
But in sharing Jonathan’s twin bed of plaid sheets, the thought of touching would occur to him ever so lightly. He would maneuver his thoughts down other avenues: baseball cards he had yet to procure, his mother’s brownies, multiplication tables. But Jonathan’s proximity always brushed right up against those images, however hard he clung to them.
One night, he dragged his pillow and blanket to the bathroom, crawling into the cold porcelain of the tub to bring his body temperature down.
He fell asleep there, and Luanne pulled back the shower curtain, waking him what seemed like moments later, exclaiming, “I thought we’d lost you!” She went on and on about how much she was dreading calling his mother, as she lifted him, blanket in tow.
“Was it Jonathan’s snoring?” she prompted. Her eye makeup was already on, brown lines just under her eyelashes. “I know it’s been getting bad lately.”
He nodded quickly and she said she would have breakfast ready soon.
On the bus, both boys clutched their bags and rubbed their eyes. Benton thought he had detected trouble a few rows back when a burly boy two grades older saw them getting on together. Now that the bus was in motion, the boy came marching towards them, the buttons on his shirt clearly strained with his size. Assuming the empty seat in front of them, he asked about their “lezzy mommies” and if they had decided on a date yet.
“A date for what?” Jonathan barked, his cheeks twitching.
“A date to leave their husbands and declare their love for each other,” he laughed, his faint freckles appearing and disappearing over his nose bridge.
“Our moms aren’t gay,” Benton said, his sentence splintering with fright.
“Doesn’t look that way. They’re always together and laughing and giggling, touching each other like this,” the boy reached out for Benton’s arm as he batted his eyelashes. “Ask anyone. Everyone sees it. Figures you’d be in denial though.”
“You mean like you’re in denial about that shirt fitting you?” Jonathan laughed, his brown hair coming just to his eyebrow.
The boy grabbed his own shirt and looked up.
“Here piggy, piggy! Here, pig!” Jonathan turned up his nostrils and snorted, the older boy suddenly hollow in the eyes. He turned around as Jonathan continued to snort.
Benton placed his hand on Jonathan’s arm. “You can stop now,” he said. “He’s not bothering us anymore.” After school, Jonathan and Benton sat in Jonathan’s bedroom, a series of comic books splayed out before them. Benton was watching Jonathan’s face from behind his comic book, positioning the pages so that he could watch Jonathan’s mouth.
Jonathan tipped his comic book towards the floor and studied the carpet.
“You don’t think our moms are really gay, do you?”
“No,” Benton absently turned a page.
“What about those notes they always write back and forth to each other?”
“They’re just thank-you notes. For the sweaters and food they give each other.”
“But have you ever read one of them?”
Benton knew that he didn’t need to. With her cardigan tucked around her shoulders, his mother scribbled quick lines as she handed him Tupperware to return. There was nothing there but gratitude and perhaps a request for Benton to spend the night. He knew it just as he knew the texture of her favorite cashmere sweater, forever to his chin as she hugged him at the dinner table.
But the idea of sneaking around the house with Jonathan, of holding a piece of paper closely between them and reading the words together was much more exciting than the truth. And so he lied. He said he had never read one. And they devised a plan to sneak into his parents’ office after dinner. Jonathan and Benton told Jonathan’s mother that they had a lot of homework to finish and that they had to go right back upstairs.
“Well, alright.” She began rounding the table and collecting the plates. “Which subject?”
Both boys paused, deferring to one another.
“I just want to know what has you so excited. It’s not every day my son bounds upstairs to do homework.”
“Just math,” Jonathan mumbled as they started for the stairs.
She watched them go all the way up, the plates still in her hands.
“Maybe we shouldn’t,” Benton tapped his friend’s arm as they neared the office threshold. Shadows pooled along the floor of the darkened room and Benton suddenly feared their proximity. Jonathan felt around for the switch.
“She won’t come up here. I can hear her washing dishes.”
Jonathan went to the wooden desk by the window and began pulling out drawers and rifling through papers. Benton dragged himself from the door.
“Your mom writes on those tiny envelopes. I’ve seen them. Thick white ones.” Jonathan dug under pencils and pens, the ends sticking upright as he continued to excavate. “I would know one if I saw one.”
As Benton neared the bureau, his own heart picked up in speed and he considered running back downstairs or down the hall to Jonathan’s room.
Jonathan reached for another drawer by Benton’s ankle and began picking through blank Christmas cards and valentines. There, sandwiched between stock birthday and Easter cards, Jonathan found exactly one note. He knelt down with a silent victory and Benton crouched. Their heads came together over the tiny script and Benton felt the warmth of Jonathan’s breath. Somewhere in the middle of his mother’s praises for the flourless chocolate cake, Benton leaned in and kissed Jonathan. Jonathan’s mother suddenly moved in the threshold, a dishtowel dropping from her hands. “Looks like we each lost a friend today,” his mother bit her thumbnail as they sat on the back porch. The night air was thick and she had been hugging him close, sweat collecting in the crook of her elbow. She told him that he shouldn’t worry about school or Jonathan speaking ill of him to the other kids. “Luckily, we came to an arrangement.”
Benton thought of the moment when his mother finally did arrive. When she pulled Jonathan’s mother into the kitchen and told her that there was no use in blaming a child. That it wasn’t as bad as she thought it was.
Jonathan’s mother had her arms folded, her expression hardening into deep lines by her mouth. Benton watched from the living room, the place he was told to sit alone until his mother came to get him.
“I just want you to know that I don’t have a problem with it. I don’t. I just don’t want any of this around my son,” her mouth tightened another notch. “I can’t have this with my son.”
Benton’s mother spoke low with her hands to each of her friend’s elbows—some deep incantation of reason with which Jonathan’s mother eventually nodded.
The house slowed with deep breaths and Benton fell asleep on the itchy linen sofa that Jonathan’s mother would never let them eat on. He awoke with his mother’s hands to his forehead, instructing him to get his backpack.