Clara and Benedict

Robert Pinsky

Some boys about the same age as Benedict cornered a cat once, in front of the place where Clara and Benedict were living with their parents, who moved restlessly around the country as the father closed or sold one business and went on to start another elsewhere. So Benedict didn’t know the boys. The cat was making itself large and small at the same time, as frightened cats do, and the boys were stoning it.

Clara was inside, reading a book, but she could hear the noise. She heard Benedict’s voice and one of the boys yelling that Benedict had let the cat get away. She looked out her window and saw a boy stride forward and hit Benedict on the side of the head. Benedict’s head snapped to the side, his black curls bouncing. Nothing else happened; Benedict went on talking and the knot of boys kept on yelling excitedly.

Clara put down her book and walked slowly out of the house. She was tall and fair and three years older than Benedict, with yellow braids pinned in tight spirals against her head. The boys ran away at the sight of her. When she spoke to Benedict, they found that he was totally deaf in one ear. The ear improved gradually for a few weeks, but it never worked normally again. That was when she got the habit of repeating and explaining things for Benedict while he waited, smiling at her clear, dry summaries and explanations. As small children they had not been especially close, because Benedict was quiet and soft. Clara was impatient, and seemed indifferent to everything but her tireless reading. But from then on, for the rest of his life, she protected him.

Their mother was so devoted to Benedict that she absent-mindedly called nearly all males of any age, including her own husband, “Ben.” She and Clara argued incessantly, about anything and nothing, but above all about Benedict—what the doctors in the city they left had said about his ear, whether he should be offered another helping, whether he should get married, or should ask for a raise, whether he had or had not heard some specific remark.

If they argued about the small, dapper father and his businesses, or later about Clara’s husband, it was really arguing about Benedict, since the mother nearly always called both of them “Ben.” When they came to the town where they stopped moving, and stayed for the rest of their lives, boys became interested in Clara.

In the shorts and baggy striped jersey, with his white neck and dark eyes, he looked too vulnerable.

When the time came to choose among them, she chose the best-looking one, as if out of impatience. In the same way, she didn’t care what she read, and chose books that fit into a genre she could exhaust without choosing: biographies of artists, the Civil War, science fiction. Benedict often asked her to tell him about what she was reading, and she did.

“It’s about a woman who throws herself away on a jerk,” she told him, “because she’s married to another jerk.” Or: “It’s about the Crash. Nobody knows what caused it. Roosevelt doesn’t know either. But Hoover doesn’t even know it happened.”

Except for such remarks to Benedict, she never talked about the books. He was not a great reader himself. He liked technical things and puzzles, and once went through a phase of liking to draw objects in front of mirrors.

Clara both scorned and studied the town that became their home. If the mother gave Benedict money for a haircut, Clara explained: “Fifty cents for a haircut, plus a dime for the tip.” Then she added on her own, “Don’t let Bucky do it, say ‘I’m waiting for Sam.’ And tell Sam no clippers, your mother said scissors only.”

“What’s wrong with Bucky?”

“He’s not a barber, he’s a bookie, he’ll make you look like a convict. Then you can go out for football.”

Benedict went out for soccer in high school. The mother was upset: in the shorts and baggy striped jersey, with his white neck and dark eyes, he looked too vulnerable. Clara went to the games, taking along the boy she was going to marry and his friends. She made them into a cheering section. Benedict played well, with a studious grace, but he was not as excellent a player as he might seem while dribbling the ball easily away from opposing players. He was too shy to be aggressive, too shy even to be afraid. His curls began to thin a little—because, his mother said, after soccer the players took showers instead of sitting baths. She and Clara argued about it.

Once only, Clara deferred chivalrously to her rival. When Benedict was in the army, fighting in Europe, he came to her one night in a dream, dead tired, and begged her for a cup of coffee. She had children of her own, and the dream was so vivid and terrible that she got up and stood at the children’s beds, watching them breathe. The next day, her mother told Clara that in the middle of the night Benedict had appeared, coming down the hall from his old bedroom to his parents’ room. “Ma, I’m exhausted,” he said. “Please, make me a cup of coffee.” The mother, feeling she might have gone crazy, got up and made a cup of coffee.

“He came to me, too,” said Clara, “but I didn’t make him coffee.”

They were afraid that the dream meant Benedict had been killed, but he returned safely. Clara’s little boys, one fair and one dark, played with his thick-soled army boots as he sat in his sister’s living room. Because of his trouble hearing, he should have been 4-F; but the ear had performed just well enough to pass the physical, on testing equipment that might have been defective. Now, when the children or his brother-in-law spoke, Benedict waited smiling while his sister explained. He had a little pink bald spot on the crown of his head.

“Beach erosion,” Clara said to him. “Commissioner Armand Catalano had a plan. Big Army Catalano, not Little Army. He got the Corps of Engineers to shoot sand off the end of the pier, to make a reef. Goodbye sand, nobody ever saw it again. So Army and Little Army and the old man made another fortune, selling sand to the government and shooting it back to Europe. To Sicily, maybe.”

Benedict was attractive to women. After the war he worked in a shoe store and in a diffident, polite way he sometimes invited an unmarried woman customer to go out with him. He was so polite and formal that the invitation was almost never refused. This amused the other salesmen, who thought Benedict must be extremely sly.

The idea of Benedict behind the desk handling keys and taking payment for rooms disturbed them. It seemed excessively worldly.

Clara and the mother argued violently about the women he asked out, disagreeing even about what the issue was. Somehow the question of these women cut through to a violation or failure on Clara’s part, a betrayal of her mother.

“Clara, why hurt me? Why do you need to make me miserable? Why can’t you be a little bit like Ben?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know why, why don’t you tell me? And Benedict doesn’t have anything to do with it. Maybe I wouldn’t bother you so much, if you ever, even just once, took the trouble to teach me how to cook.”

“Why torture me about cooking? The Queen of England needs cooking lessons, not you. Why couldn’t you sit and watch me, the way Ben does? He sat and watched me yesterday. You don’t even know how to sit still, without a book in your hand—even Ben knows it, I don’t know why he married you.”

“Ben didn’t marry me, he’s going to marry that cockeyed Jewish babe, the bottle of bleach from Bradley Beach. My husband’s name isn’t Ben.”

“Why are you hurting me? Is it because you want to kill me?”

They argued several times a day, more and more savagely as they began to realize that Benedict was going to marry a woman they didn’t like. They disliked her because her hair was brass-colored, and because her parents ran a pseudo-plush hotel near the ocean. The hotel seemed unwholesome and venal to them, and the idea of Benedict behind the desk handling keys and taking payment for rooms disturbed them. It seemed excessively worldly, deeply different from the shoe store.

But after he was married, Benedict went to night school, eating supper at Clara’s house or with the mother, while his wife worked at the hotel. The food at Clara’s house was the same as at the mother’s, brought over daily in two or three installments of jars, bags, and boxes by the mother herself. The deliveries took place in a loud storm of accusations and refusals, a vicious duet that became a routine joke for the little boys, making themselves sandwiches or eating their grandmother’s cooking straight from the jar while they giggled at the two yelling women. Their grandmother called both boys “Ben.”

When the mother became sick, Clara grew furious with her for refusing to enter the hospital. The mother said she preferred to die at home, if she had to die. Clara refused to visit her. They argued about it over the phone, shouting and weeping, often hanging up on one another and calling back. Then for nearly a year, while the mother died, Clara did not speak to her, instead spending more and more time in bed herself, reading. People in the town were critical. A dry cleaner who had been one of the boys who wanted to marry Clara sent her an hysterical anonymous letter denouncing her for cruelty to her sick mother. Benedict saw the mother once or twice a day, holding her hand and murmuring while she wept. He stopped at Clara’s house, too, and for a while asked her mildly if she would go to see their mother. Then he gave up, and they talked about their mother only rarely and as if she were thousands of miles away. When the old woman died, Clara did not attend the funeral, but Benedict drove her to the interment.

After the brief service at the graveside, everyone began to leave. People were trying not to stare at Clara, theatrical in her yellow hair and capelike black coat. The coffin was still next to the grave.

“What about my mother?” Clara said.

The funeral man explained that the actual lowering and burying of the coffin happened later, when the mourners had left.

“No,” said Clara. “I’m not leaving until she’s buried. I’m not leaving my poor mother up here like that.”

It took an hour to assemble workmen and some ropes for lowering the coffin. Clara and Benedict and the embarrassed father and a few others waited until the grave was filled.

After that, for years it was as if something stood still, though in the libretto of the family’s life things happened. Benedict got out of school and became a pharmacist, choosing to work for the various branches of a chain store rather than going into business for himself. His wife divorced him, and went back to the hotel. He lived by himself and ate out a few times a week at inexpensive restaurants with Clara and her family, who ate out most nights. Benedict still smiled in the old way when Clara explained some remark by her husband or one of the boys. It was hard to say, as always, if Benedict was indulging Clara’s pleasure in her own ironic, bored tone or if she was indulging his pleasure in having things set out for him.

When Benedict died, in the hospital, Clara was holding him in her arms. They had been talking, and then he went to sleep and died. The sickness and the treatments had made him completely bald, and his body had become very small and light. When a nurse happened to come into the room she found Clara still sitting next to the corpse, and scowling down at a book.

Robert Pinsky is the author of Jersey Breaks: Becoming an American Poet, an autobiography forthcoming in October.
Originally published:
January 1, 1984


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