We would go over to the Benners on Sunday night, on the way back from Flat Creek Inn. They lived just one block over and three blocks down from us, but we never went over there any other time, even though they were that close.
“Do we have to stop there?” I asked mom as we came up Broadway and took a right onto the Benners’ street.
“It’s a nice thing to do,” she said, then gave my dad a sideways glance. I didn’t know what that meant.
We parked facing south and crossed the street to their brick house with the front porch. They were old—older than mom and dad—and didn’t have any kids so it was never any fun for me and my sister. We rang the doorbell and Mrs. Benner answered the door with a big hello, or as big as she could manage from her little body. She had shrunk like old people do; she used to be heavy-set but now her dresses hung on her like a pup tent on a scout sleepover weekend.
“Well, hello there,” she’d always say, like she was surprised, but I knew she wasn’t. They expected us to come over, it was the highlight of their week, mom said.
Mr. Benner would be sitting there in his reclining chair, watching TV, and he wouldn’t get up. He’d usually be eating a bowl of dessert by the time we got there. We’d go in and he would sorta lean forward but not like he was really trying to stand up. He’d want to see me and my sister and he’d say something about us. “How’s my princess,” he’d say to my sister, and “How’s the ballplayer?” he’d ask me. “Fine,” we’d both say, but we wouldn’t get very close. He didn’t smell bad, but he wore a lot of after shave, so he gave off a powerful scent sometimes.
After we’d been discussed and flattered and dismissed my sister and I would go out on the porch and sit on the swing. We had to be careful not to swing too hard, their porch wasn’t that big, we could’ve hit the wall.
The window would be open because the Benners didn’t have air conditioning like we did, but there was never anything interesting about the adults’ conversation. Mr. Benner had worked with my dad a long time ago, when they were at the same company in St. Louis I think, but I’m not sure. They lost track of each other and then somehow ended up in the same small town together. Mr. Benner was retired but my dad was still working.
“What a coincidence!” my dad said the first time we went over to their house but it didn’t seem like such a big deal to me. They were both adults and they were in the shoe business, I figured it was a lodge like the Elks or the Lions Club. When we went to New York to buy inventory my dad told me if you stood in Times Square long enough you would meet someone you knew even if you were from a small town in Missouri. If that was true, I didn’t see why you wouldn’t run into somebody in your hometown that you knew from a big city.
After a while the fireflies came out, and my sister went inside to ask if Mrs. Benner had a Mason jar she could catch some in. Mrs. Benner did a lot of canning, she would let us have a jar she didn’t need if we asked.
“Sure, sweetie,” she said, and she went down into her basement and came back up with a jar. She had even poked holes in the metal lid with an icepick so the fireflies could breathe.
“What do you say?” I heard my mom ask my sister through the window.
“Thank you,” she said, then ran outside and went to work. There was only one jar so there was nothing for me to do but watch.
“So how are you doing?” I would hear my dad ask Mr. Benner after the night had worn on, but in a serious tone, not like when he’d first see somebody in the barber shop or on the street downtown.
“Oh, you know, it comes and goes,” Mr. Benner said. He didn’t sound happy or sad, just answering the question.
“Did you ever go over to Columbia?” my mom asked. That’s where the big hospital and the medical school is.
“We did, but they couldn’t do anything for him,” Mrs. Benner said.
“Well, I guess there’s only so much they can do,” my dad said.
“I know,” Mr. Benner said. “I just take it day-to-day. Try to stay positive.”
“You were always upbeat,” my dad said.
“It helps,” my mom said. “I read an article that said it did.”
“We just trust in the Good Lord,” Mrs. Benner said.
My mom and dad didn’t say anything then. When Mrs. Benner got religious they’d just drop the subject.
“Well, I’ve got a full day of work ahead of me tomorrow,” my dad would say, then stand up when he was ready to go.
“Somebody’s got to pay the bills,” Mr. Benner would say.
“You work so hard,” Mrs. Benner would say but she didn’t really know. She only got out to go church and run errands. My dad could’ve been the biggest goof-off in the world and it would never come to her attention.
“It was good seeing you,” my mom would say, following dad’s lead.
“You are awful kind to check in on us every so often,” Mrs. Benner would say.
The three of them—my mom and dad and Mrs. Benner—would come to the door together. We didn’t have to go in and say good night to Mr. Benner, but we had to let Mrs. Benner hug us if she made a move to and we weren’t too far away. She was really flabby but she usually smelled like her cooking, so it wasn’t too bad.
“You be good!” Mr. Benner might call out from his chair and we’d wave at him, then we’d go down and get in the car.
Everybody would be silent for a while as dad made the left turn, drove up three blocks and turned onto our street.
“Imagine a man like him, dying like that,” my mother would say. “Sitting there eating a bowl of whipped cream, all by himself.”