Fiction: The Ben Franklin
By Christopher Johnson
I never felt like I fit in in Upton Grove. Everything was so perfect on the outside—the elm-lined trees, the pistachio flavored sidewalks, the candy-colored shop windows, Pine’s Men’s Clothing with its buttoned-down trousers and Madras shirts with the little hook thing in the back, the Upton Grove Public Library where I once worked with its stalwart pillars and lines and lines of books and magazines and wisdom, a descendant of the library that Andrew Carnegie himself funded in the early 20th century, the Upton Grove Federal Bank at the top of the ridge where Main Street and Gardiner and West Highway intersected, the straight-laced streets with the elms hanging over them like benign visitors to care for and protect us. The drugstore where old people filled their prescriptions, St. Matthew’s Catholic Church on West Highway with its beautiful cathedral-like marble interiors where we spoke to God once a week and God spoke to us, the nondescript doctors’ and dentists’ offices, the Chicago and Northwestern tracks blitzing through town and carrying strangers in and out of town, the Valencia Theater with its art deco exterior built in the 1920s with its spire jutting far into the sky and injuring the clouds, Clark’s Stationery Store where we would take our list of supplies every August in eager anticipation of the coming new school year, the pipe shop along the tracks that my friend Jerry’s old man owned and where Mr. Jenkins would occasionally give us a chance to puff on a cigar and we would talk about the upcoming election of 1960 and how he was rooting for JFK, he being one of the very few derelict Democrats in town, Kirby’s Ice Rink where beautiful blonde girls went to practice their artful dancing on the ice, Brigham’s Department Store where my grandmother would ask me to accompany her when she bought her new dainties and I would look away knee-deep in embarrassment as she manhandled new bras and panties while standing in the aisle of the wooden-floored department store, the Ben Franklin Five and Ten where Bobby Cuccinelli and I would roam the aisles and talk to the parakeets in cages at the back of the store and where we would buy our candy for a dime, and Randy’s Record Store paved with thrilling vinyl of Elvis and Dion and Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard and of course Buddy Holly who had tragically died the year before.
Me and Bobby were best buddies. Had been all the way through Millard Fillmore Junior High. Bobby had this smooth sable skin and a falcon-like beak and coal-black hair that he swept back in a proud Pompadour and dark dark eyes like pools of secrecy with no bottom to them, and even though he wasn’t handsome he had a feel for girls and they had a feel for him, and he always carried a silver metal comb, and he dragged the comb out of the rear pocket of his jeans and swooped that spectacular comb through the hairs of his Pompadour until every single hair was perfectly in position to do harm.
School had just let out for the day, and I can’t remember what day it was, it could have been a Monday or a Tuesday or whatever, and him and me, we ambled toward downtown Upton Grove, carrying on our typical amiable aimless smartass eighth-grade conversation, and we sat down on the steps of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, which we Catholic lads called St. Mary’s Epissable Church and laughed at our semi-naughty cleverness, and out of the front pocket of his skin-tight jeans, Bobby fished a couple of Pall Malls that he’d borrowed from his Ma’s purse, and we lit them with the matches that Bobby had thought to lift at the same time from the self-same purse, and I inhaled and felt the smoke drift like a black cloud into my lungs, and then I exhaled, and Bobby exhaled and as he did so, he blew smoke rings like perfect clouds that floated above us and started to drift sacreligiously toward the entrance to St. Mary’s Epissable Church. I could not yet form smoke rings, but even so I felt infinitely cool and advanced sitting next to Bobby and smoking his Ma’s Pall Malls.
“You know what?” Bobby spat out. “That Miss Hassbrook, she’s so old she’s a cadaver. She’s a corpse.” Miss Hassbrook was our language arts teacher and taught us grammar and spelling and reading and literature. But Miss Hassbrook’s greatest love in life was sentence diagramming. She loved to have us disentangle sentences through the elaborate diagrams that she taught us step by step, as explained in our bible of grammar--Warriner’s English Handbook.
Bobby sucked on his Pall Mall and spat. I knew he was pissed, and I knew what he was pissed about. Miss Hassbrook had given him a C on our last theme—the one we’d had a whole week to write about to explain what our favorite television show was. Bobby had written about The Untouchables, which he loved, and Miss Hassbrook had only given him a C. “Too vague,” she’d written in blood-red ink at the top of the theme. “You need reasons. You need examples. You can do better than this.”
I’d gotten an A for my dissertation on the wonderfulness of Maverick, but I wasn’t about to tell Bobby that. Somehow I felt guilty for getting an A when my best buddy had gotten a woebegone infinitely mediocre C.
When we’d gotten out of school that afternoon, Bobby had torn up his theme with the blood-red C on it and had cast the various broken pieces of paper to the wind. I’d been shocked. “The theme is supposed to go in your folder!” I screamed at him. I wanted to gather up the various pieces of his theme and tape them all together for him.
“The hell with it,” he’d said. “She’s just an old prune. She’s all dried up, just like an old peach. Why, I bet she’s never even had any sex.” Bobby said it so knowingly, as if he knew anything about whether Miss Hassbrook had sex or not. I barely even knew what that—having sex—even meant, but Bobby said it so knowingly. “A goddam C,” he said, and he spat on the sidewalk as if his spit were acid.
Bobby knew a lot about sex. He’d even introduced me to Playboy magazine. He knew where his old man hid his Playboys—under the mattress of his parents’ queen-sized bed. His old man always had the latest Playboy stashed there, like nuggets of gold. Oh, God, we studied those magazines, with me carefully positioning my hands to try to hide the hard-on that would sprout up immediately like a prairie dog popping up out of a hole. We gazed with amazed slithering eyeballs at the shiny pneumatic beauties that Hugh Hefner had conjured up from somewhere, and we stared and stared at those naked nude beauties and breathed ever more heavily, and we gulped as we stared and slowly turned the slick pages and entered further and further into the provocative world of skin once-removed.
I jerked my attention back to the here and now, sitting in front of St. Mary’s Epissable Church. Our age-old eighth-grade pattern was to meander and ramble toward the Ben Franklin with its decades-soaked wooden flooring and buy candy bars—Three Musketeers for me, Snickers for Bobby. The candy bars were our drugs, our booze. “Let’s went,” Bobby barked as he smooshed out his smoked-up Pall Mall and stamped the butt to smithereens on the pavement. I followed him, forever obliterating my smoked-up Pall Mall that didn’t even have any filters. We got up and ambled and shambled over to the Ben Franklin, and he turned to me and said, “Hey, Augie, I was just thinking. Why should we pay anything for our candy bars? Anything at all? Aren’t they rightfully ours? Don’t we have a right to them?” He paused and thought. “I know what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna just take mine. Just gonna take it.”
“Really?” I said in wonderment. “What if we get caught? What if we get thrown into jail?”
Bobby just ignored me and kept on walking. There had always been a whiff of danger about Bobby. Meanwhile, I shrank from danger. I wanted to stay within myself. I was not one to take such risks. I fretted. Why bother, I wanted to say. A candy bar is only a dime. One thin dime. This was a transgression. This was beyond the pale. I felt trapped, but I did nothing more than slow down.
We entered the store, and there the candy bars were, spread out in wondrous variety toward the front of the store, within eye range of the cashier lady, who was about 110 years old and wore an evil eye. Bobby looked at me as we walked through Ben Franklin’s doors, his eyes shining with the prospect of sin and wrongdoing. My heart galumphed as if a chipmunk were scurrying around in my breast. The prospect of what we were about to do somehow made everything brighter. I looked at the candy counter, and it seemed so open to the searching, peering eyes of the lady cashier.
While Bobby loitered near the candy counter, I wandered toward the back of the Ben Franklin—classic delay tactic. I studied the shelves lined with pots and pans and calendars and notebooks and other things. It all became a blur, mowed down before my beating heart. I glanced at the front of the store, and there was Bobby, looking as innocent as a drooling baby as he peered at the candy counter. I looked away and continued wandering up and down the aisles, walking on that ancient wooden floor with its loud squeaks and studying all the junk on the shelves and not really seeing any of it.
I looked again at the front of the Ben Franklin, and Bobby was gone. After a moment, I could see him through the front window of the store, standing on the sidewalk, munching on the Snickers that he’d stolen. He looked through the window. He looked at me with that look that says, “Well, I did it, so get on with it!” My heart just about leaped into my throat.
I walked slowly, my feet sliding along the wooden floor toward the candy counter. I was about twenty feet from the counter. The cashier lady stood at the cash register, a few front feet away from the candy counter. She had gray hair and bored eyes. She looked out the front door of the Ben Franklin. She looked at Bobby. I wondered if she had figured out what he’d done. She looked away from Bobby and licked her lips. She looked at her watch. Time crept by like a growing fingernail.
I approached the candy counter, keeping my eye on the lady cashier. I desperately wanted her just to disappear. That would make my transgression so much easier. But of course she didn’t just disappear. She stood there, as stolid and implacable as the Statue of Liberty. Another customer—a lady—came up behind me. She carried something to purchase. It was an oven mitt. She approached the cashier lady and paid for the mitt. The cashier put the mitt into a paper bag and gave the woman her change. I remember every detail so incredibly clearly. Then the cashier leaned against the shelf holding the cash register and started to pick her teeth with a fingernail.
I moved nearer the candy counter, slowly but inexorably. I stood next to the counter. I peered at the never-ending variety of candy. The Three Musketeers—the object of my theft—was far away, resting innocently on the top shelf of the counter. I would have to reach across the full depth of the counter to slip the Three Musketeers into my pocket. Impossible!
I looked down at the candies that were closest to me. The cashier evil-eyed me and picked her teeth. Right in front of me, at the front of the candy counter, were Oh Henry and Mars bars. In a place that was much easier to reach with ultimate stealth. I’d have to settle for one of those, even though they weren’t my favorites. The cashier lady looked at me as if to say, “Well, hurry the hell up and make your decision!”
She continued picking her teeth, as if some tiny particle of food had lodged itself between two of them. Her teeth were yellow--I could see that. My heart beat so rapidly that it felt as if my chest was expanding and contracting. The cashier looked at me quizzically. I smiled at her. She didn’t smile back. She looked down at her fingernails. She picked once more at her teeth. Then she turned and looked out the window. She looked at Bobby, chawing away on his candy bar.
I stood in front of the candy counter. Now was the moment! I targeted the Oh Henry bar. It would be so easy to grab it and slip it into my front pocket! I kept my eye on the cashier. I was ready to pounce. But my hand, my arm, wouldn’t move. For God’s sake! What was happening?! The cashier turned back and looked at me, bored out of her mind. She must have been wondering why I was just standing there doing nothing. She had to have been wondering what was going on with me. I looked past her, out the front window of the Ben Franklin. Bobby stared at me. He mouthed the words “Hurry up!” He looked pissed.
Something in his look snapped me back to the here and now. I knew in that instant that I was going to perform the deed. I took a deep breath. I stared at the cashier. I stared into her eyes, as if I could mesmerize her. I stared at her forthrightly, brazenly. She licked her lips and picked her teeth yet again. That tiny particle of food was really lodged in there. I could tell she wasn’t used to having an eighth grader stare at her so brazenly, so openly. She turned and looked once again out the window. She looked at Bobby. He waved at her and grinned. A distraction! Just what I needed!
I shot my hand out, clutched the Oh Henry, almost dropped it. But with trembling hand, I slipped it into my front pocket. The cashier lady turned away from the window and back toward me. She stared at me. Her stare accused me. She kept staring. Somehow she knew. I looked away from her. I faked a cough. I kept coughing. I raised my hand to cover my mouth and continued my coughing jag. I glanced at the cashier lady, and she looked away from me. I continued to cough. At the same time, I felt the Oh Henry hot in my front pocket. I felt every inch of that candy bar. I kept coughing and started to stagger out of the Ben Franklin. I nodded at the cashier lady and coughed. She looked at me and picked her teeth as I disappeared through the front doorway and spilled out onto the sidewalk.
I walked up to Bobby. My heart pounded furiously with triumph and transgression. “Well, Bronsky, did you get it?” I nodded. He said, “Great!” I looked over my shoulder, half-expecting to see the cashier lady chasing after us--yelling, “Police! Police! Thief! Thief!” But she wasn’t. She was still in the Ben Franklin. Still picking her teeth.
Bobby and me—we walked back to St. Mary’s Epissable Church. We sat once again on the steps. Bobby ferociously finished the rest of his Snickers. I took the Oh Henry out of my front pocket and stared at it. It felt hot to the touch. Suddenly I had no desire to eat it. I just stared at it. “Well, Bronsky,” Bobby said, “ain’t you gonna eat yours?”
I shook my head. “I’ll eat it later,” I murmured. “I gotta go home.” I got up. I left.
As I walked toward home, I slipped the Oh Henry back into my pocket. It still felt hot. I thought for sure it was melting. But when I took the bar back out, it hadn’t melted. It was solid.
When I reached home, I was careful to hide the Oh Henry from my parents. I did not want them to see the Stolen Object. I felt funny, and I had no idea why. What was this funny feeling? Bobby had gobbled his Snickers right up, as if he hadn’t a care in the world. But I could not bring myself to eat the Oh Henry. What was wrong with me?
After dinner, I went upstairs dutifully to my bedroom to do my homework. I sat down at my desk. I slipped the Oh Henry out of my front pocket and placed it on the desk, immediately in front of me. The candy bar sat there, staring at me. I stared back at it. I desperately wanted to eat it, but my hands would not move to pick it up. I could not budge my hands. I kept staring at the bar.
That night, I had dreams about the Oh Henry bar—bad dreams. Horribly weird dreams. The candy bar blew up in size. It exploded in size. It grew teeth and started to attack me. It was dreadful. In my dream, I jumped out of bed, stark naked, and the Oh Henry chased me crazily around the bedroom, grinding at me with its cold and gleaming teeth. Round and round the bedroom I ran, outrunning the vicious Oh Henry bar. It wanted to eat me! The candy was like a wolf—a wolf-sin—snarling at me, trying to gobble me up. I woke up from this horrible dream in a dead sweat.
I turned on the light next to my sweat-besotted bed. There, on the desk where I dutifully did my homework every night, was the Oh Henry bar, sitting there all innocent.
I needed to talk to someone about what I’d done. But who could I talk to? Not Bobby—he would just laugh at me. And of course I couldn’t tell my parents that I had stolen an Oh Henry bar. I knew what they would say. “You’re on your way to becoming a hardened criminal! Well on your way to life in prison! And you need to return the candy bar! And you need to go to confession!
Confession! I hadn’t been to confession in two years. In that time, my sins had accumulated like an explorer’s collection of shrunken heads. So many sins, compounded by the brazen theft of the Oh Henry bar. If I went to confession, I’d be saying rosaries for the rest of my life.
All day at school the next day, I felt that Oh Henry in the right pocket of my pants. By now it was really super soft and mushy, but at the same time, it felt like something alive. It was alive and malevolent in my pocket. I could barely pay attention to what Miss Hassbrook and the other teachers were trying to teach us poor ignorant eighth graders. In language arts, Bobby sat on the other side of the classroom, and I couldn’t hardly bear to look at him. I felt the Oh Henry in my pocket, melting and burning me. It was only a ten-cent candy bar, for God’s sake! What the hell was wrong with me! It was just a stupid candy bar. Whoever owned the Ben Franklin would never miss it.
I looked at Bobby, on the whole other side of the classroom. My best buddy. For him, stealing the candy had been nothing. Shoplifting a candy bar. That’s all. No big deal. He’d gobbled down his Snickers like it was the greatest thing in the world. It hadn’t bothered him at all.
What the hell was wrong with me?!
I looked again at Bobby. He was daydreaming, as he always did in class. He rested his chin on his open palm and stared out the window. I started thinking. What if shoplifting the Oh Henry was the start of a Life of Crime!? Then he—Bobby—would be the one who started me down the Wrong Path in Life!
By now, I was obsessed with the Oh Henry. It was stupid and absurd to be obsessed with such a simple thing. I had no idea what was going on. After school, Bobby asked me whether I wanted to do our wandering thing to downtown Upton Grove. No, I said, I’m gonna go home.
OK, he said, as if I were making the biggest mistake in the history of the world. I wanted to be by myself. That was all. I just wanted to be by myself. He left, and he didn’t look back.
Once he was out of sight, I walked downtown. Across from the Ben Franklin was a park. In the park was a bench. I sat down on the bench. It wasn’t far from the Ben Franklin, and I could see through the front window of the store. There was the cashier lady, just like the day before. Dusk was settling like a thick blanket over Upton Grove. The inside of the store burned with fluorescent light, and the light sprayed out of the front window and spilled onto the sidewalk in front of the store.
I sat in the gathering darkness, untouched by the light in the store. I stared at the cashier lady. I studied her. She was the guardian of the cash register. This time, she wasn’t picking her teeth. She had her arms crossed. She wore an apron that had “Ben Franklin” blazoned across the front of it. Besides the cashier lady, the store was empty. There were no customers at all. The cashier was staring unblinkingly at the farthest corners of the store. She was there and not there. I studied her face. I hadn’t really looked at her before, when I’d stolen the candy bar. Her face was like a map, with roads wincing across her skin—roads worn into her skin from countless years of wear and tear and travail. Her lips were thick, her hair gray like the slag that steel mills produce. Tiny wisps of hair straggled down from her head and tickled her neck. Stars brimmed in her iron-gray, ancient eyes. Her stare ramshackled across the trembling space between us. The stare of her eyes drew me to her. She rested her arms on the cash register. She heaved a sigh as if she were lifting a ton of weights. She licked her lips and liked what she tasted. I knew that very instant that she had been disappointed by something, but of course I had no idea what it was. Something lost had saddened her. Maybe a doll—her favorite doll from girlhood. Maybe that was it. She licked her lips again and took Chap-Stick out of the pocket of her apron and applied it like lipstick to her lips, stretching her lips out as she rubbed the soothing Chap-Stick over them. Her eyes were an empty cellar. She stared around the store, but there were no customers to spy on.
As I studied the cashier lady, I suddenly felt a welter of sadness that overwhelmed me. I continued looking at the cashier. I couldn’t help myself. I stared at the cashier lady, and I felt completely and totally helpless, and suddenly tears begat themselves in the farthest reaches of the corners of my eyes, and the tears agonized their way down my cheeks and burned their way toward my innocent and helpless mouth. I didn’t sob. It was nothing so dramatic as that. It was just simple tears--tears like a gentle storm of innocence engraved upon my cheeks. I wiped them away and thanked God that Bobby wasn’t there to see this.
I knew at that very infinitesimal instant what I had to do. I lifted myself slowly from the park bench and started to walk across the street toward the Ben Franklin. As I drew nearer the store, the light of the fluorescent bulbs inside the store embraced me and gathered me through the door of the store and seduced me toward the cashier lady. In my front pocket, I felt the hot, burning, squishy Oh Henry. The fluorescent lights of the store engulfed me and blinded me, and I felt completely lit up. The cashier lady looked surprised to see me. In fact, she was astonished because I was glowing, shining. She stared at me. She looked at me with infinite kindness in her eyes. “Can I help you, young man?” she said softly.
I was still bathing in the stark, brilliant light of the store. I took a deep breath. I reached deep into the left pocket of my pants. It was like reaching all the way to China. I grabbed hold of the dime that rested in the very depths of my pocket. I drew the dime out. With trembling nervous scatting blinking hand, I placed the dime carefully and even delicately and even beatifically on the counter in front of the cashier lady.
She took the dime in her pork chop hand and opened the cash register and placed the dime inside. She turned toward me and smiled a smile that reached toward the distant stars and galaxies where the gods were reputed to live. “I understand,” she whispered. “I understand.” The piercing fluorescent lights of the Ben Franklin surrounded us, bathed us, bound us together, flowed through us, connected us in a blinding blaze of light as I stood there and stared in awe at the cashier lady.
Christopher Johnson is a writer based in the Chicago area. He’s been a merchant seaman, an English teacher, a textbook editor, an educational consultant, and a free-lance writer. He’s published short stories, articles, and essays in The Progressive, Snowy Egret, Earth Island Journal, Chicago Wilderness, and other journals and magazines. In 2006, the University of New Hampshire Press published his first book, This Grand and Magnificent Place: The Wilderness Heritage of the White Mountains. His second book, co-authored with David Govatski, was Forests for the People: The Story of America’s Eastern National Forests, published by Island Press in 2013.