Stretch doesn’t respond to Big Ben’s apology. Big Ben waits a long moment for something — anything — but Stretch’s lips become a hard line. Big Ben backs into the kitchenette.
At least Big Ben — Benjamin Garrity, Sr. — hadn’t covered his mouth to scramble the utterance, or fake-cough it as might some idiot kid in one of Stretch’s high school history classes. No, Big Ben spoke as if at a podium. And in the silence that followed, his gaze unlocked from Stretch’s and fluttered along the carpet. That’s when Stretch — Benjamin Garrity, Jr. — unclenched his fists.
“Happy Thanksgiving anyway,” Big Ben offers.
He wrestles with the bag of leftovers Stretch just delivered, hiding in the chore because he can barely avoid himself, let alone Stretch, in this HUD efficiency. It’s a monk’s cave; gouges on bare walls, cobwebs in corners. Ghosts shadow the screen of a tube television with the sound off. A Bible and other prayer books breach one arm of the couch, spilling over onto an end table.
The old man puts the kettle on. Big Ben’s back, which had been broad and fearsome when Stretch was a kid now continues the neck’s fragility. And the arms in the flannel shirt, once muscled and weaponized, move indecisively. Everybody shrinks with age — Big Ben’s 78 — but alcohol and rage had been the old man’s fuel, and their absence makes him puny. The mean son of a bitch of yore — that man had shattered against rock bottom six years, eight months, and 23 days ago. Stretch knows because when he’d come in he’d glanced at the little blackboard magnetized to the refrigerator where every day Big Ben erases one milestone and chalks in another.
Mom left when the youngest of Stretch’s two baby sisters graduated college. Big Ben tried to find her. How dare she? That manic episode ended when one of Stretch’s brothers, a cop in the Philadelphia suburbs, cuffed Big Ben when the old man trespassed onto that jurisdiction.
“You’re on my turf now, asshole,” the brother had said.
There had been a three-day stay in municipal jail until son freed father without filing charges and sent Big Ben on his way with: “Why don’t you just die already?”
But Big Ben dying in the throes of Big Benity would have been too neat, tidy. The bastard reformed instead — joining Alcoholic Anonymous.
“God found me!”
When Stretch heard that — the baby sisters had relayed it — he’d felt nauseous.
The baby sisters — who Stretch and his brothers had shielded from the worst of it — eventually and warily welcomed Big Ben back. Sort of. Mom said she forgave Big Ben, but could never be in same room with him. The restraining order gets extended each year. The holidays feature Mom, and Mom alone.
Baby sisters had found this place. On Thanksgiving and other family celebrations one or both would deliver food and spend time with Big Ben.
Stretch hadn’t talked to his brothers about this. They’d worked so methodically to protect themselves and the rest of the family during the Rages — devising a code to warn everybody not to go home, or finding informal shelter with sympathetic cousins, or friends’ parents. The sons wanted to forget.
This Thanksgiving, however, the sisters couldn’t deliver leftovers. The brothers talked it over. Stretch lost.
“Thanks so much,” the old man said when Stretch arrived. Stretch couldn’t hide his surprise.
“Yeah. I don’t look the same, do I?”
An understatement. Big Ben could be a parade balloon partially deflated.
When he took the bag, Big Ben said: “The girls usually chat a bit?”
“I got to bounce.”
Oh, what the hell.
“But yeah, Ben, I can stay for tea.”
The old man smiled, his bright dentures contradicting ravages of a wasted life.
“Good!” Pause. “Ben!”
Stretch immediately regretted referring to Big Ben by his first name. When Stretch had been a toddler — before the Rages became regular occurrences — that had been their father/son thing, calling each other by their given name.
Big Ben’s smile melted before Stretch’s refusal to acknowledge that things had ever been good.
As Big Ben stuffed food into a packed refrigerator — judging by the smell half the contents fester on the wrong side of expiration dates — small talk dripped out.
Then, rising, stepping out of the kitchenette and facing Stretch, Big Ben just had to go and say it.
“You know, son, one of the twelve steps….”
Stretch groaned, but Big Ben wouldn’t stop.
Stretch knows this had been one of the risks of visiting. Baby sisters had been apologized to. Mom had gotten letters. Stretch never acknowledged the letter he’d received; had only skimmed it.
Still, he’d hoped that just getting that letter would have spared him this moment, but no.
Stretch contains his own rage. He senses right away that this request would always top the list of abuses Big Ben had heaped upon him. Worse than the batterings, worse than the belittlings, worse than the embarrassments, worse even than a child seeing his father strike his mother, knocking her over a kitchen table. Worse than the night he’d set their house on fire, worse than the two bankruptcies because he’d gambled everything away, worse than the long spells of solitude when Big Ben rarely left his basement hideaway. Because the rest of the family knew that depression would eventually lift, and new Rages begin. No, nothing Big Ben had ever done or said to Stretch cuts as deeply as this apology.
So now all is forgiven? Forgotten? It’s that easy? Big Ben one time backhanded Stretch so hard that he’d broken the nose. When Stretch met his wife, she said the boxer crookedness made him look sexy.
“I’ll tell you about it sometime.”
“I can guess,” she’d said.
Now, Big Ben washes the dishes as Stretch sips tea.
“Little birdies tell me you’re building an addition,” Big Ben calls over his shoulder. “How goes it?”
Frank Diamond’s poem, “Labor Day,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize Award. His short stories have appeared in RavensPerch, Examined Life Journal, Nzuri Journal of Coastline College, and Fredericksburg Literary & Art Review, among many other publications. He has had poetry published in many publications. He lives in Langhorne, Pa.