By Randy Hawkinson
It was early morning. When I answered the phone two people began
talking on the other end. One said Ben had locked himself in the bedroom
with her, and the other said to hurry. One thanked me and then they both hung up.
My mom and dad walked into the kitchen. I told them. My mom
sobbed and my dad peeled his pajamas off his belly.
My mom said she thought the doctor said Ben's mom was getting
better. She asked what had happened. I didn't know. My mom sighed.
Then my dad said that someone should call Ben's football coach at the
University of Minnesota, that he could coax Ben out. My dad shook his
head and my mom said we'll take some banana bread for Ben and Beth,
and here, eat these doughnuts. Then we all drove over.
Uncle Ferdy opened Ben's door. He was holding a fifth of Old
Forrester. He said nothing, then wiped his mouth on his sleeve. His red
nose bobbed as he bit his lip. Then he smiled at me and I said Hi Booly
The bedroom door opened into the living room, so everyone was there.
A plant was tipped over on the carpet. Everyone walked around the dirt.
My mom said my dad's name. Ben's younger sister, Beth, was sitting on
the couch, crying.
One of the police officers, the younger one, mentioned the possibility
of bloating or smell. He said in Vietnam he and some others came across
this teeny little dead granny " gook" in her hootch. My mom pinched a
bead on her rosary and said a prayer. He said she was puffed up fatter
than a pig and stinking worse than anything he'd ever smelled. Then he
and his partner and the doctor walked up to the bedroom door and asked
Ben to come out. Ben told them to shove it. Then he called the doctor
a liar. Someone said there wasn't enough air.
Father Lafontaine called out to Ben that there were rough spots in
everyone's life. As he spoke he waved his white hands and moved his frocked
arms in great slow arcs like someone rowing a boat in a dream. Ben swore
and kicked the door and said sure, and to tell him all about it.
Everyone started talking, saying they knew what should be done. Ferdy
took a drink and stomped his foot and grunted. The young cop, the heel
of his hand smothering his squawking walkie-talkie, told Ferdy to cool his
jets and take it easy on the circus water. Ferdy stumbled over to me and
offered me a drink. I said I'd better not, Booly. Then he took one and
said Ish, that's good, and wound his way through the bodies and round
the dirt. Beth blubbered and bawled and my dad said we should call Ben's
Then Father LaFontaine draped an arm around me and led me up
to the door. Someone said someone open a window. My cheek cooled on
the smooth varnished wood. I listened. The doctor said he wasn't a liar,
and then no one moved and I almost said Ben. My dad told the cops that
when Ferdy got drunk on bourbon he turned into Booly Boolosh. Beth
blubbered and gasped for air, and then the bedsprings squeaked. Booly
who? the cop said, and my dad said Boolosh, Norm Boolosh, Minnesota's
fullback. Then the bedsprings squeaked again and Ben said my name. His
nose was plugged. He was inches away. He tried to clear his throat and
Everyone started moving around and talking again. Ferdy tucked his
bottle under his arm like a football, stiff-armed the air and plowed his
way into the kitchen. The doctor paced. My dad wiped the back of his
neck and said oofta, it's sticky in here, eh, and that this was a job for Coach
Salem. Father LaFontaine swung his arms again and said Ben, my son, we
know, we know, and the doctor said he wasn't a liar. The old cop lifted
a hand above his head and said the humidity must be up to here. I leaned
against the door and let my hand fall from my cheek. Beth tried to say
Ferdy walked back in carrying a bag of potato chips. The young cop
said she could even be stinking and bloating now because it happens faster
in the humidity and heat. Ben leaned on the door. He told Father
LaFontaine that he could go plumb to hell.
He yelled it.
My mom pinched another bead and said a Hail Mary. Ferdy laughed
and blew bourbon through his nose. Beth tried to stop crying. The young
cop whispered was this a puzzle palace or what. His partner said it was
just the frequency of this crap, that's all. Father LaFontaine touched the
door and said to Ben that yes, yes, it's hard, but that we should let Him
decide when-but Ben just yelled it out again and swore and kicked the
Nobody talked. My mom pinched another bead and the tips of her
fingers turned red. Beth started bawling again. Ferdy mingled, offering
chips. The officers peeled their uniforms off their skin, and my mom's
fingertips turned white. Then Ferdy asked who remembered the words to
"In the Cellars of Old Cloquet High."
Then the doctor yelled into the bedroom something about why he'd
said what he did. Father La.Fontaine sighed. Someone's skin glistened. The
young cop said he'd bet his left arm that she was puffing up like a
baloo-but someone said someone please open a window. My dad wiped
his face and said the solution was a phone call away. Beth shuddered. I
lifted my fingers from the knob, and pressed the backs of them to the
door. Ferdy started humming.
Ben said that he had to pee. He asked me if I would bring in an empty
pitcher. He yelled that if anyone else tried to come in they were dead meat.
The room was dimly lit from the closet light. Ben thanked me for
the pitcher. His bicep jumped when he grabbed it. He asked me to lean
against the door so it would click. The young cop said if he had it his way
Booly Shmooly would be on his way to Duluth for the cure, and Ben
wouldn't-but his partner said it was simply a matter of frequency.
Ben turned away from me. He'd held it for a long time.
His mother was all lumped under the bedsheet. Ben said oofta. Ferdy
stopped humming and said there wasn't enough air around to dry a June
bug's butt, and then started humming again. Ben put the pitcher on the
window sill and squeezed me and said after he'd lifted weights and run
sprints he just found her there. Here. He said he'd started shaking and
then yelling and then Beth came in but he shoved her back out and locked
the door. She'd called the priest. He said he'd strangle the doctor. Ben's
square chest heaved. Ferdy began to sing. My dad asked why someone
wouldn't just pick up the phone and call Ben's coach. Beth whimpered
and choked, and the doctor said that what he'd told Ben was no different
than what he'd told the Pollard boys about their father last week. My dad
said Mother of Mary and one of the cops asked Ferdy what the hell his
real problem was, anyway.
Ben's chest glistened, and then he held his breath too long and
squeaked. He swore and coughed and looked at his mother. He pointed
to the sheet over her face and said he didn't know what the hell else to
do, and that the doctor had lied. Ben's fingers wiggled. He flexed his upper
body and tried to clear his throat. The old cop said frequency.
Ben did push-ups. He asked me to count. His forearms bulged and
the muscles on his back wiggled like snakes. He pushed and pushed and
I counted out loud. The blue Chippewa throw rug wrinkled under his feet.
Ferdy sang. Ferdy sang and sang and sang. When I said fifty Ben stopped
and stood up. His chest was gorged. Then with the heel of his hand he
tried to smooth the sheet that draped her. He patted one side smooth,
but then the other side wrinkled, so he started shuffling back and forth,
squeaking and pinching and patting and in different voices saying words
and names and other things. He pointed to the pitcher and said who would
believe it and pinched a wrinkle. His bottom lip turned inside out.
Ferdy sang the refrain and started over.
She was just lumped under the sheet. Beth bawled and bawled, then
tried to say something, but a walkie-talkie squawked about a 10-41 in
progress at Stella's Bar, and that a back-up and something else was needed,
and then someone said someone open a window before they croak.
Then Father Lafontaine called out to Ben and said we know not the
time or place. For a moment everyone listened. Then the doctor yelled that
lying wasn't the word for it at all and the young cop again prophesied
bloating and Ben, with his pumped pectorals and milk-jug forearms and
striated back, pinched at the wrinkles and patted the lump and between
squeaks talked fracture, saying things in different voices like so many radio
stations crowded too close in the night.
Ferdy gurgled another verse.
And then Ben crumpled onto the bed. He breathed and looked
around and said my name and looked at me. And I said his.