God Will Cut You Down
by Tom Bennitt
part 1 of 2
For the first show-and-tell of the year Ben Gaffney brought in his dad’s September Playboy issue, which Ben had found under the sink of the upstairs bathroom. When Sister Margaret, his third grade teacher at St. Luke’s Elementary, called Ben up to the front of class, he thought he’d read the magazine’s short story aloud.
He never got the chance. Sister Margaret shot out of her chair, lunged at Ben’s dangling arm and snagged the Playboy. She had a quick first step for a heavy woman, Ben thought. Her sweaty hand clutched his wrist and led him to the principal’s office.
According to Sister Margaret, class clowns and troublemakers were like forest fires. Snuff them out early. For the next few months Ben behaved like a model student, quiet and attentive. She thought the fire was out, so she moved her hose to a new corner of the forest.
Ben recognized this, too, and he began to coax his flame back to life. When his friend Jimmy Skurka bet him a week’s worth of candy bars to play his AC/DC tape at lunch, Ben accepted. On the day of reckoning he smuggled his boom box into the cafeteria inside a large gym bag. He walked behind a wall made by his four largest friends and stowed the bag under his table.
Once the cafeteria filled up he reached into the bag and pressed play on the tape deck. He’d reasoned that the relentless chatter of grade school kids eating lunch would conceal the music. Within seconds, the place fell dead quiet as “Hell’s Bells” thundered from his feet. Though he quickly shut it off and acted nonchalant, the lunch lady barreled toward him like she’d been tipped off by an informant. Each step of her orthopedic shoes shook the table.
Ben had committed more than a few acts of rebellion that year but he saved his best for the spring choral concert. During the final song, a stirring rendition of “America the Beautiful,” Ben fished a pair of wraparound sunglasses out of his pocket and slid them on. Then he lifted his arms skyward like an evangelist and rolled his head around in figure-eights, grinning wildly.
The students had performed the concert in front of parents and teachers, and Ben’s Stevie Wonder impression triggered strong visceral reactions from the audience. There were some gasps, a few chortles, and rampant laughter. Dads jabbed other dads on the shoulder and said “Check out the kid in the back row!” The moms asked each other “Whose boy is that?” Ben’s mother slumped in her seat and stared down.
“Is that our son?” Ben’s father whispered.
“I quit.” She put her hands up to shield her face.
A few parents clapped, thinking it was choreographed, while the teachers in the front row traded glances of shock and horror. Sister Margaret, who had cataracts, was the last to notice. The choir director turned back to the teachers’ row and waved her hands at Sister Margaret and then she pointed her baton at Ben. Like some medieval Crusader charging a clan of pagans, the sister jumped out of her seat, shot up the center steps of the stage and plowed past the taller boys of the back row until she’d reached Ben. Then she escorted him out of the hall and down the familiar path to the principal’s office.
Meanwhile, bedlam reigned over the assembly hall. The parents were acting like kids and the kids were a frenzied mob, jumping around the bleachers and giggling about Ben. The choir director abruptly ended the concert and ushered the kids out the side door.
Halfway down the main hall Sister Margaret stopped and bent down to Ben’s eye level. “Mark my words, boy. One day God will cut you down,” she said.
Her brazen voice scared Ben and made him think she’d received inside information from God. Ben stared back, hiding his fear. Her dark, embedded eyes refracted the light, and her snarled eyebrows nearly connected above her nose, long and thick-pored.
The principal had witnessed the episode from the back row and made a quick exit so he wouldn’t have to quell the mob. He summoned Ben into his office, closed the door and sat down behind his gray metal desk. He wore a pale yellow dress shirt with a plaid tie. The shirt was made of thin polyester, revealing dark patches of chest hair.
“Son, I’m sick and tired of seeing your face in here. Do you know the pain and suffering you’re causing your parents?” The principal hesitated. “So what’s your excuse this time?”
“Sir, my body was momentarily occupied by demons.” Proud he’d thought it up, Ben tried hard not to smile. “It comes on like a seizure, about once a month. I know because the last time it happened a voice said ‘Ben, we’re demons, here to use your body as a vehicle for creative expression. Don’t fight it and we’ll be gone in a few minutes.’”
The principal chortled, but quickly caught himself and regained his solemn demeanor. He pulled his chair close to the desk and sat erect. His mouth was a tight line, any vestige of amusement now fully drained from his face.
“You’re a clever kid, but being a prankster and a smart ass will get you nowhere in life, remember that. I’m cutting your recess the rest of the year.”
Ben left the office and scurried out the school’s main exit.
“Well?” Ben’s father asked as he climbed into the back of the Buick.
“Sister Margaret said God is going to cut me down.”
“She said what?” His mother asked, wrinkling her forehead like she did when her husband came home late for dinner and reeked of whiskey and cigarettes. “Ben, Sister Margaret and I grew up together. She’s a good and devout Catholic and you better respect her. But she doesn’t have kids of her own, so she might get overzealous with her students, okay?”
“So God’s not gonna cut me down?” Ben asked.
“No, but if you keep pulling your little stunts, don’t worry about God because I’ll cut you down myself. Now what did the principal say?”
“He cut my recess for the rest of the year.” Ben said, trying to sound crushed.
“Only two weeks left, that’s too light,” she said. “I’m grounding you for a month, no allowance. And no summer camp.”
“You can’t do that, I love camp! You’re the worst mom ever and I hate you!”
Ben’s father banged his hand on the wheel. “Not another word, young man.” Ben met his eyes in the rearview mirror and then looked away.
Though Ben was angry about summer camp, his mother’s reaction had reinforced his impression of Sister Margaret. He was pretty sure that “overzealous” meant crazy, loony, off the reservation.
* * *
Ben stood in the foyer of his first house and stared at the half-painted walls. It was a muggy, July day and he wore sandals, cut-off jeans and a frayed t-shirt. His three-bedroom townhouse was located in Lawrenceville, a trendy enclave in Pittsburgh’s East End. Another rung in his climb up the social ladder. His last apartment had been a cramped, musty one-bedroom, part of a “campus” in some anonymous suburb, besieged by a labyrinth of freeways and malls and cookie-cutter restaurants. Even though Lawrenceville had some poor, drug-laden sections, he enjoyed the energy and vitality of his new city life.
Ben tore strips of blue painter’s tape and refastened the plastic tarpaulin to the baseboards. Then he poured the can of dark red paint labeled “Deep Passion” into the tray and slid the roller back and forth along the tray until the paint was evenly spread. A Grateful Dead tune played on the stereo. Every silver lining’s got a touch of grey... I will get by, I will survive.
During the past month Ben had repainted the den, dining room and kitchen. The act of painting imbued him with a sense of physical achievement absent from his office job and hobbies like reading, writing and watching football. Sure, he played golf and walked Mookie, his boxer, at the local park for exercise, but he’d also lost many hairs and added five inches around the waist since his college days. Thirty was not the “new twenty,” not even close. He’d somehow wandered into that early middle age abyss, the same one his friends would casually refer to after too many beers in some crowded nightclub where every girl appeared to be twenty-two.
The townhouse was more an investment than a toy. He did own a few toys, like the ski boat and the Audi turbo coupe, but he worked hard and felt like he’d earned them. A lawyer, Ben worked for a big litigation firm downtown. He drafted memos and briefs, conducted depositions and kissed ass, all in the pursuit of a coveted, elusive partnership.
And his toys had already given back value. Gretchen first noticed him docking his boat at the marina. She was eating lunch on the deck with a girlfriend, and she raised her sunglasses and winked at Ben when he passed their table. Gretchen loved expensive, shiny things and looked very good in them. Even if she cared little for literature or art, she got so horny when he’d open up the Audi on a country road.
Ben accepted his life and enjoyed its perks but wished he’d had the courage to pursue his creative passions. In grade school he’d used that energy to terrorize the sisters at St. Luke’s. Third grade with Sister Margaret was a particularly memorable year.
Looking back, he felt somewhat guilty because he had not been railing against the Catholic religion. And he was not a bad kid, not like a bully, anyway. In fact, humor was a defense weapon. Ben was a short, scrawny kid. Bullies stole his lunch money and threw down his books and cute girls laughed when he walked past, so he made jokes and pulled pranks to make friends and shed the “nerd” label.
In college he’d written a few short stories for a creative writing class. He threw himself whole hog into that class, the writing and the progeny of a story through revision. He took ownership of his work, and one of his stories was even published by a small literary magazine.
Copyright © 2007 by Tom Bennitt