Copyright is held by the author.
“Don’t you ever read skinny books, Lizzie?”
“I like to read big books.”
“Yeah, but they weigh a ton. A fella could do himself an injury carrying your books.”
“I seem to recall you volunteering to carry them, Benny.”
“Well I didn’t know you were bringing the whole library, did I?”
Having known Benny for most of our twelve years, I am immune to his grumbling. I remind him that I am carrying two fishing rods, and a well packed picnic basket, but that fails to halt his muttering.
“It’s summer time, Lizzie. We’re on vacation, remember? We’re going to the river, to my lucky spot, with a picnic lunch, and you brought books for cryin’ out loud; we’re supposed to be havin’ fun.” He attempts to adjust the books in his arms, but Bleak House, Moby Dick and A Brief History of the Hundred Years War are not easily shifted.
“Reading is fun for me Benny, and it wouldn’t kill you to improve your mind a little over the holidays.” I’m aware of my priggish tone, but I’ve noticed a tendency toward slothfulness on Benny’s part. Aunt Sib says a woman should never attach herself to a lazy man, so I sometimes give Benny a kick in the pants for his own good.
“Besides, you know Aunt Sib is determined I should go to university.” I drop my voice an octave and impersonate my aunt.
“Lizzie, all women should have an education to fall back on. Life can be cruel to the unprepared woman.” Benny laughs at my imitation. “You do that swell, Lizzie. Do another one.”
Aunt Sib doesn’t hold with cheap jokes or cruel mockery so there is little chance to display my theatrical talents at home. Benny, on the other hand, can always be counted on as a captive audience. I drop the rods and wicker basket to the ground and launch into my rendition of Reverend Wilson reciting the twenty-third psalm. I strut back and forth, arms flailing, and hands gesticulating, spittle flying in all directions. It sets Benny off into such wild fits of laughter that I fear he’ll drop my books. I only get as far as He restoreth my soul, before the sound of Benny’s laughter makes it impossible for me to continue. To my chagrin, I snort like a warthog when I laugh, which Aunt Sib says is unladylike and rude, but Benny has no such qualms; my wildlife noises only make him laugh harder.
Poor Benny Hogarth. He is in love with me. That’s what my Aunt Sib says. She assures me there is nothing to worry about. I must be patient and suffer his ardour until he loses interest, which he is bound to do. Aunt Sib says all men lose interest eventually, and Benny Hogarth will no doubt prove himself as fickle as the rest of his kind. “You must keep a level head Lizzie, and endure his devotion like a bad cold or the flu, until it dwindles and fizzles out. Aunt Sib is a great believer in endurance.
We reach the river bank. The July sun dances through the trees, creating a kaleidoscope of light and shadow on the water. Benny leads the way to what he loosely refers to as his lucky fishing hole, under the ancient oak, where the river curves and deepens to a still, dark pool. I put our lemonade in the shallows while Benny prattles on like Captain Ahab, expounding the joys of threading a worm on a hook.
I bend a little to hear Benny’s words of angling wisdom even though, I assure you, there is nothing wrong with my hearing. Truth is, I am tall and Benny is short. He is a Hogarth after all. And now, as he smiles up at me with a gap tooth grin, I am reminded that all Hogarths are doomed to two things: a lack of stature and a space between their two front teeth.
Granny once told me that what the Hogarth men lacked in height they made up for in other ways. “The Hogarth men got those blue, blue eyes. Like deep mountain pools those eyes are, make a woman want to dive right in. Eyes like that charm the pants off any woman; and Lord knows that’s happened more than once.”
The idea of a woman relinquishing her drawers to a pair of blue, blue eyes puzzled me, so as always; I turned to Aunt Sib for the truth. Her lips drew into a thin, tight line and her gray eyes darkened to slate nuggets. I was reminded in no uncertain terms of the sin of partaking in gossip, and that most of the time Granny talked nonsense. No reference was made to the removal of undergarments under any circumstances, and I had the good sense not to broach the subject again.
As Benny engages in the fine art of fishing, I observe him with secret sidelong glances, and ponder Granny’s words. He is grinning like a fool with a space between his teeth you could drive a team of horses through, and I find it hard to believe he would be capable of magic tricks with any part of his body including his blue, blue eyes. Nevertheless, I’ll be on my guard. I intend to keep my drawers right where they’re supposed to be.
To be fair to Benny and the rest of the Hogarth clan, we Websters have certain family traits that distinguish us as well. We have a tendency to a tall and gangly physique, with grey eyes and dull brown hair that curls like the very devil during the humid summer months. My Aunt Sib is a prime example of a true Webster. And as I am very like my aunt, with the exception of my eye colour, I am therefore destined to be called “big boned” or “handsome” or “strong”. Not a description a twelve year old girl wants to contemplate I assure you.
Granny sometimes tries to buoy me up with the assurance that Aunt Sib cut a fine figure in her day, and there was no shortage of young men lining up at the front porch hoping for a chance to walk out with Sybil Webster.
Sadly, Granny’s optimism is always short-lived. With her next breath, she blames Aunt Sib for sabotaging any matrimonial opportunities she might have had by exhibiting a keen mind and strong opinions. Characteristics which, in Granny’s words are, “two nails in the marriage coffin, or I’m a monkey’s uncle.” With a gnarled finger pointed in my direction, the lecture continues. “Don’t matter how pretty a woman is; a man don’t want a woman who knows her own mind and that’s the simple truth. And they sure as shootin’ don’t want damaged goods. The sooner you learn that my girl, the better off you’ll be.”
I open A Brief History of the Hundred Years War hoping for a distraction from Granny’s grim counsel. But medieval warfare proves no match for my contemplations on the exact nature of damaged goods, and the possible correlation to dancing blue eyes. I look up and Benny is smiling at me. It is a very engaging smile, as smiles go. Could it be that he really is in love with me as Aunt Sib claims?
I toss my dull brown curls and give him my most beguiling grin. Then I tilt my head just enough to make my dark brown eyes sparkle. They are, without doubt, my best feature, my one true vanity. I don’t deny it. Why would I pretend otherwise when there’s so little else to crow about? Besides, Aunt Sib says false modesty is the worst kind of vanity. Sweat trickles down my back and my armpits are clammy; I toss aside the Plantagenets and take up Bleak House.
And so the morning passes according to our usual pattern. Benny catches nothing and explains as we enjoy our picnic lunch, that it is my fault. “You talk too much, Lizzie. Fishing is a silent kind of thing. With you chattering all the time, no fish in his right mind is going to bite that hook.” I assure him that next time it will also be a solitary pursuit, because I will be at home preparing for university, which is where I should be at this moment, instead of listening to him blame his incompetence on me.
“For cryin’ out loud Lizzie, we’re twelve. How much preparation does it take to go to university?”
“Well I don’t know for sure, but I for one, intend to be ready.” I slam Bleak House shut, having silently declared the Jarndyces a bunch of fools.
Benny’s voice drops. “Are you really planning to go away to university Lizzie?” I can’t help but feel a little flattered by the desolation in his voice.
“Of course Benny, that’s what Aunt Sib has her heart set on. As you know she gave up higher education to take me in, and one should never bite the hand that feeds them. Besides, I think I’d like to go.”
“Oh.” He sounds wonderfully miserable. To cheer him up I embark on my impression of Mrs. Jennings, the post mistress. We soon forget all about fishing and studying and take up silliness full time. Benny is laughing at my version of poor Mrs. Jennings trying to stamp an envelope with her gamey arm and the one eye that looks off in the distance, and I’m laughing at Benny, glad that we’re friends again.
“Well, well, what have we here? Two lovebirds?”
The sun is behind him so it takes a couple of seconds to make out the hulking form of Elmer Finchley. He looks down at us like a giant from a fairy tale, a toothpick hangs from his lips, and his hair is coiffed to perfection with an over-generous use of pomade. I suspect he fancies himself a lady’s man. More than likely he’s late for his shift at the mill. All Finchleys are notoriously unreliable, and given to a pugnacious nature. And Elmer is a true Finchley. He’s big, brawling, and stupid, which in my limited experience can’t be a good combination.
“What do you want, Elmer? The food is all gone so there’s nothing here to interest you.” Benny smiles at me, believing that he has bested the oversized buffoon looming over us. I have a niggling feeling he’s wrong.
Elmer sucks on the toothpick, bends down slow, and picks up Bleak House. “Now what the hell is this?”
I’m on my feet, grabbing for the book. “Now, now Missy, hands off.” He holds the book out of my reach in a hand the size of a catcher’s mitt, his voice hard and mocking. There’s a look on his face I can’t identify, but I refuse to be pushed around by the likes of Elmer Finchley.
“Give it back, you big ape. It belongs to the library.” As soon as they leave my mouth, I see the error of my words, and switch tactics. “Please Elmer.” I force my voice to remain calm and measured, as though I’m speaking to a child. “I need that book. It will help me study for university, which is what my Aunt Sib wants, and she’ll be very unhappy if she discovers that you have damaged or stolen the book.”
From behind me Benny chirps up. “Lizzie, he don’t need books; he’s too stupid to read.” Oh Benny, no. I close my eyes and pray for my friend to be struck dumb.
Elmer lowers his gaze to Benny, spits the toothpick out the side of his mouth, and steps toward him. He pauses, a small smile dances on his thick lips, and he turns he gaze back to me. My recently consumed picnic lunch roils; weak stomachs, another Webster curse.
“So you wanna go to university just like your Auntie Sybil?”
“Yes I do, although I can’t see it’s any of your business, Elmer Finchley.” I stand taller, toss my dull brown curls, and give him my stink eye.
“What are you gonna study? Whorin’?”
I’m innocent, but not stupid. I know the meaning of the word, but that doesn’t help me now. All my words abandon me and the world starts to spin in a slow and sickening way.
Elmer laughs and looks at Benny. “You know what I mean, right, big fella?”
My head swivels between Elmer and my best friend. Benny looks stricken and pale. “Benny?” But Benny’s eyes are focussed somewhere down river.
“Wassa matter shorty, cat got your tongue? Can’t tell your little girlfriend here the truth?” Elmer shrugs. “No problem. I don’t mind elaboratin’ the details.” He turns back to me and smiles, revealing two protruding front teeth, another unfortunate Finchley family trait.
No! The word screams in my head. “P-please Elmer.” My voice is whispery.
“Don’t you listen to him, Lizzie. Nothing but lies ever come out of a Finchley’s mouth.” Benny’s voice seems far away.
I want to cover my ears, turn back the clock, a few minutes, an hour or twelve years, but it’s too late. Elmer Finchley has the bit between his teeth.
“Turns out Missy, your Aunt Sybil loved university. I mean she really loved it. Yessiree.” Elmer rocks back on his heels. “She went off to university, got herself knocked up, and came home with a little bundle of joy: you. So ya see, your Aunt Sib’s a whore, and your mama. What d’ya make of that?”
“You’re a goddamned liar Elmer Finchley.” Is that my voice? Can’t tell; having trouble breathing.
“Nope. I’m not. Ask around. Whole town knows. You’re not so smart after all I guess. With all your fancy book talk, and goin’ on ‘bout university, Hell, you’re just a joke, Lizzie Webster. I might be common as dog shit, but least I ain’t a bastard.” Elmer throws his head back and laughs. “Not so high and mighty now, eh Missy?”
There’s a roar from behind me and I watch dull-eyed and stupid as Benny launches himself at Elmer. I recall little of their set-to, except the briefness of it, and the sight of Benny flying through the air, landing face down in his lucky fishing spot. I watch, speechless, as the current swirls him in slow motion before dragging him away from me. Bleak House and Moby Dick suffer the same indignity, making little plops as they hit the water.
Elmer turns to leave, laughing and shaking his head. There’s a sound, a second roar, a volcano of hurt and rage erupting. The Brief History of the Hundred Years War is in my hands and I swing it hard, making contact with the back of Elmer’s empty skull. He staggers a bit, so I hit him again. This time he drops to his knees. I raise the book high over my head, give him one more whack for good measure and watch as he slumps face first on to the grass. I wonder briefly if I’ve killed him, and realize I don’t care.
I run into the water crying, even though as a rule, we Websters don’t cry. The warm summer river feels like ice water as it crawls up my body. My teeth are chattering. I slip on moss covered rocks, going under, then popping to the surface like a demented jack-in-the-box, sputtering, choking and sobbing. My clothes hang from me like a crepey transparent skin, weighing me down. The gentle river current is now a raging torrent intent on stealing Benny from me. “Benny! Please Benny. Stop, wait for me.” I lunge for him again and again. Then his pant leg is in my hands.
As I drag Benny toward the shore my books drift by, leaving me behind. Up river Elmer is on his feet shaking his greasy head. He slips on the damp grass, curses; then walks away without looking back. A Hundred Years War lies torn in the mud.
I call to Benny over and over while whacking him on the back. It’s all I know how to do. After forever, he chokes up water and struggles to sit up. His nose is bleeding profusely and there’s blood flowing from a gash on the side of his head. Tears run from his eyes.
“I’m sorry.” He says over and over. I don’t know why he’s apologizing. I don’t want to know, not now, not at this moment, maybe never. I only know now.
Now I throw my arms around Benny, and now I lean into his body, forgetting his height, and the gap between his teeth. And he is solid under me, like a small river rock. He is here, he is real. I clutch onto him like a life raft; his blood stains my clothes and our tears mingle. His arms find their way around me and I know that the boy with the blue, blue eyes will be a part of me forever.