“Bennie” – a short story by Marianne Peel

June 20th, 2023

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“Bennie,” a short story by Marianne Peel, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 62nd Short Fiction Contest, and is published with the consent of the author.

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photo via PxFuel

photo via PxFuel

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Bennie

by Marianne Peel

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…..He always liked the way his mother folded his socks.  With the heels together and the tops folded down together in two precise folds.  She lined them up on his bed – freshly laundered with Felsnaptha soap.  Sometimes they were ordered left to right, from light to dark – like a flight of bourbon down at Joe Semanchik’s bar.  Other times, she’d leave them on his comforter, just below the pillow, in a circle.  Sometimes she would arrange them in geometric shapes.  Bennie would sometimes draw pictures of her sock arrangements with his crayons.  He viewed them as his mother’s Sock Art.  Never in the same sequence or in the same shape.  Always, he could find her artistry on Thursday, exactly at six pm – laundry day.

…..When a Thursday came and went and no socks appeared on his bed, in any configuration, he knew something was wrong.  His mother was punctual, always on schedule.  You could set your clock, just observing the movements of her day.

…..If Bennie wanted to know if it was six a.m., he just listened to her slurp orange juice from a mason jar.  If you wanted to know if it was ten  a.m., he listened for the sound of her sprinkling clothes to be ironed, using that old can with holes perforated in the lid.  Bennie could mark eleven a.m. by the sound of the steam escaping from the iron –and then that heavy press and push.  If Bernie listened carefully, he could hear the hiss of steam that always made his mama push her bangs off her forehead.  If he wanted to know when it was noon, Bennie would listen for the crack of the egg on the counter and then the tearing of the shell.  She was expert at not allowing even one shell into Bennie’s favorite egg salad.

…..If Bennie wanted to mark three p.m., he knew to listen for the clang of her miniature spoon in her afternoon Earl Grey tea.  She shoveled three spoons of sugar into her tea – and one drizzle of Jim Beam.  And if Bennie wanted to mark eight p.m., he would listen for the sound of her teeth plunking into a glass of seltzer.  She always watched Lawrence Welk at eight p.m., and told Bennie she could sing along better without her teeth getting in the way.  When he was an especially good boy, she would let Bennie play with her teeth while she watched the bubble machine weave its way through the Big Band trumpets and trombones on Lawrence Welk.

…..She’d always taken such good care of Bennie, knowing he couldn’t possibly live on his own.  Bennie was afraid of fire, and the gas stove terrified him.  One time he worked up his courage, tried to boil some water for noodles, when his mother was busy watching General Hospital, her favorite daytime show.   He left the water on too high, and the pot burned, setting off the smoke alarm and making their apartment smell like burnt plastic for days.  His mama didn’t yell or scream.  She never held grudges.  She just made him pinky promise to never go near the stove again.

…..So it was strange on this Thursday that his socks were not arranged on his bed.  He’d never known her to be late.  She was like the best clockwork he knew.  He could set his life by her sounds, her movements, her daily routine.

…..Bennie went searching for his mama.  Sometimes, when he was busy watching  Mister Ed, his favorite talking animal show, his mother would pull weeds from the garden.  She’d never yank the dandelions because she knew they were Bennie’s best flower.  Bennie was amazed and shocked to discover that the round yellow flower heads were the same flower as the puffy white balls he like to blow on for good luck.  His mama said he could make three wishes for every dandelion puff he found.

…..Bennie checked out back, in the garden.  Usually he would see his mama separating hostas, wearing her pink geranium gardening gloves.  But today, she wasn’t in her usual spot.  He found her laying down between the lettuce and the sugar snap peas.  And when he tugged on her apron strings to wake her up, she didn’t respond.  He tried to tickle her, right under the chin –like he always did when he wanted to make her laugh.  But she didn’t even smile.

…..Bennie ran to the neighbor’s front porch – to Old Man Grabowski – because he was a wise man and would know what to do.

…..A few minutes later, the ambulance arrived.  The siren hurt Bennie’s ears, as did any loud noise.  He pressed his hands to the sides of his head, trying to cover his ears and make the loud sound stop.  When they took her away on a stretcher, Old Man Grabowski told Bennie she wouldn’t be coming back.  She was gone.

…..Bennie paced the kitchen, saw that his mother had already set up her tea cup for the next day, with an Earl Grey teabag ready for the boiling water and the dash of Jim Beam.  Bennie looked at himself in the round kitchen mirror, the one with irises etched in a circle.  His mama always put on her lipstick looking in that mirror.  He loved watching her stretch her lips sideways as she slathered on the Sweet Southern Ruby Comfort lipstick.  And then she’d smile at her painted lips, making sure no smudges were on her teeth.  She’d blot her lips with a tissue, one coated with aloe.  She always said this made her lips soft and smooth for anyone who wanted to give her a little peck on the lips.

…..Her tissue was on the counter, right below the mirror.  Bennie wadded it up, pushed it into his pocket, and promised himself never, ever, to throw it away.

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After having taught middle and high school English for 32 years, Marianne Peel is now nurturing her own creative spirit.  She has spent three summers in Guizhou Province, teaching best practices to teachers in China. She received Fulbright-Hays Awards to Nepal (2003) and Turkey (2009). Marianne participated in Marge Piercy’s Juried Intensive Poetry Workshop (2016).  Her poetry appears in Muddy River Poetry Review, Belle Reve Literary Journal, Jelly Bucket Journal, Comstock Review, Gyroscope Review, among others. She was a finalist for the Naugatuck River Review Narrative Poetry Contest (2020), and she was longlisted for the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize (2021). She received first place poetry prize in Kentucky’s Chaffin/Kash Poetry Contest (2021). Further, she received third place in Comstock Review’s Muriel Craft Bailey Contest (2021).   She has a collection of poetry,  No Distance Between Us,  published in 2021 by Shadelandhouse Modern Press.

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Listen to the 1970 recording of the Ahmad Jamal Trio playing Oliver Nelson’s composition, “Stolen Moments,” with Jamal (piano), Jamil Nasser (bass) and Frank Gant (drums).  [Universal Music Group]

 

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Click here to read “Mr. P.C.,” Jacob Schrodt’s winning story in the 62nd Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest

Click here for details about the upcoming 63rd Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest

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