Fiction

A Gift For Prince Benny

This would give his life meaning—the perfect gift from father to son. But what of his daughter and the hunger deep in her heart? What heritage could there be for her?

IRVIN BLOCK March 1 1950
Fiction

A Gift For Prince Benny

This would give his life meaning—the perfect gift from father to son. But what of his daughter and the hunger deep in her heart? What heritage could there be for her?

IRVIN BLOCK March 1 1950

DEEPLY from sleep Molly heard or sensed or saw or felt her father come into the room. She hugged her pillow and battled for sleep but consciousness rolled over her anyway, an inevitable tide; the black night oozed away and she lay hard and dry and awake at last listening to the grinding floorboards as Pa walked around the room. I won’t get up today, she told herself now as she told herself every morning, I won’t get up and if they make me get up I will not go to the store, I will not sell candy, I will not jerk sodas, I will not slice bacon, lettuce and tomato on toast. Revolt! Today I will go to the library and there get drunk, absolutely pie-eyed, on words!

Mr. Miller tiptoed into the room in an agony of care and stood at the side of his daughter’s bed. Seeing the book fallen splayed upon the floor, he stooped to pick it up, groaning slightly, and read its title, “Jean Christophe.” He shook his head and went resolutely to the bedside to put his hand on Molly’s shoulder. The little grey eyes crinkled tenderness behind their spectacles.

But his voice was gruff. “Molly, get up! It’s seven o’clock!”

“So it’s seven o’clock,” said Molly with her eyes still shut, “that’s fine. Now let’s everybody go back to sleep till eight!”

“Come on,” said Pa, “no monkey business.” 

“Go on back to sleep, Pa. Do you good. What’ll we lose—fifty cents from Mr. Spiegel’s breakfast?” 

“We need the fifty cents. Come on now, get up!” 

Molly dug her face into the pillow. “Fifty cents won’t buy Benny half a necktie.”

Mr. Miller sat on Molly’s bed and studied the cover of the book still in his hand. “Open your eyes at least, Molly—I gotta talk to you.”

“All right, Pa, what’s on your mind?”

Pa thrust his head toward the next room. “Benny!”

"So?"

“The kid was out till three last night.”

Molly propped herself up on her elbows and, popping out her cheeks, blew abruptly and shook the last remnants of sleep. “So what?” she said. “Look, why don’t you stop calling him The Kid like he was a boxer or something? He’s eighteen years old and he read the book and he knows the answers and the questions and he’s not glass and he won’t break. It’s between semesters and he’s got a right to have some fun. Now let the kid alone!”

“But Molly—three o’clock in the morning!”

“Is it written in the Bible you got to get to bed before three?”

“It’s no time for a young university student to be coming home,” said Mr. Miller stubbornly. “I’ll bet he was with that girl, that Belle.”

“That’s bad?”

Mr. Miller turned and glared at Molly. He stuck his chin out belligerently. “Yes,” he said, “that’s bad!”

“Look, Pa darling, I’m going to give you a book to read—about bees and flowers.”

Pa stood and tossed the book on the night table. He looked at his feet. “I don’t need no bees and flowers,” he said. “Benny’s going to university in two weeks. Nothing’s gonna interfere, understand? Nothing? No monkey business! You understand—Benny’s going to university!”

“All right, Pa, all right,” Molly said softly. “Take it easy. The Kid, the Little Lavender Prince, is going to university. Cinderella will work in the store and the Prince will go to college.”

“I want you to talk to him.”

“I’ll talk to him. Now get out so I can dress. Mr. Spiegel will miss his breakfast if you stand here gabbing.”

“Benny’s going to university,” said Mr. Miller to himself and he turned and shambled toward the door.

Mr. Miller stopped at the door and turned. The light from the window made white blinds of his glasses. Gently, he said, “Ah, you’re tired, too. All night over a book! Tsk—tsk!”

“Get out!”

MR. MILLER closed the door.

Molly groaned, flopped back against the pillow and shut her eyes tightly. Five minutes more, just of half sleep, not quite sleep, but almost as good as sleep, just teetering on the brink of sleep, flirting with it, playing with it, just five minutes—

She heard Pa open the door to Benny’s room.

“Benny!”

No answer.

“Benny—you up?”

No answer.

“Benny!”

A groan.

“Are you up, Benny?”

And Benny’s voice, bass and thick, “Yeah, now I’m up.”

“Come on, get out of bed!”

“Pa—what for? Just one good reason, what for?”

“Study!”

“Cripes! School’s over; there’s just a noon assembly today! There’re no assignments, nothing!”

“Study anyway!”

“There’s nothing to study, I tell ya!” 

“University begins next week!”

“Now look, Pa—relax, will ya? When I go to class, they tell me what to read—and then I study. That’s the way it works, it never was any different. It’s a law, Pa—it’s an inexorable law of nature and students.”

The rumble of voices drifted off, there was a stroboscopic slice of grey infinity and then Molly yanked herself out of a drowse. She jumped out of bed, stuck her tongue out at the clock and dug into her closet with fury. The vigor lasted until she was in her slip and then it slumped away, leaving her sighing in the middle of the room with her arms stiff at her sides. She padded to her dresser and sat down limply. “So? What’s the matter with you this morning?” she asked the mirror. Her image shrugged in the manner of lifting shoulders ear-high and leaving them there.

Molly’s hair was thick and strong and black. Her face was round and ruddy, as was her body, and it was brightly enlivened by a generous and active mouth and a pair of snapping brown eyes, even now glistening and fresh. The ear that grazed her shoulder was small and the shoulder that nuzzled back was smooth, warm and firm. So it was that a grin dawned through, the image in the mirror winked back at her and said, “Strong as a ox, you old workhorse you!”

Benny poked a sleep-mashed face into the room. “Can I come in?” Without waiting for an answer he entered and shuffled to the bed, where he sat huddled in his bathrobe as though very cold.

“Fine,” said Molly, “you made your impression. You look very sleepy and very tired and very degenerate. It’s a rough life being a playboy. Now go back to bed.”

“Cut the comedy, will ya?” Benny said. “I want to talk to you.”

“So talk.”

Benny shivered and wrapped his bathrobe closer. “I got to talk to you alone."

“Excellent,” Molly said. “Come to my office in the candy store. I’ll see that my secretary makes an appointment for you.”

Benny raised his head and looked at her. His eyebrows pushed up, corrugating his forehead into symmetrical furrows. The bright brown eyes so much like Molly’s appealed. He made a gesture with both hands as though presenting his soul on a cushion. “Look,” he said, “it’s important. Please! Now, huh? You’re toying with my life.”

Mr. Miller came into the room fully dressed now, brushing toast crumbs from his lap. “What’s the matter you ain’t even dressed yet?” he glowered.

“Pa,” said Molly, “I got a bunch of things to do around the house I just remembered. Now be a good boy and run along to the store. I’ll be there inside of an hour. Maybe Steve will pick me up.”

“But—”

“Pa,” said Molly.

Mr. Miller swallowed, looked back and forth from Molly to Benny several times, glared at his feet and then turned and went out of the room. “Don’t start a fresh bottle of cream,” Molly called after him, “use yesterday’s—there’s a quarter of a bottle left next to the chocolate syrup in the cooler.”

THEY heard the old man shut the door and trudge down the stairs. “Breakfast,” said Molly, going for her bathrobe. They went into the kitchen. Pa had already prepared the coffee and toast. Molly made an unnecessary clatter with the dishes, poured herself and Benny coffee, flourished a butter knife over a piece of toast, broke off half and tossed it to Benny, who regarded it with disinterest. She lit a cigarette. “Okay,” she said, “talk!” 

Benny said, “I don’t want to go to university.”

Molly choked on the cigarette smoke, gasped for air and finally crushed the cigarette into the ashtray. She stared at her brother.

Not entirely unpleased with the reaction, Benny repeated, “I don’t want to go to university.”

“Go back to sleep,” Molly said, “you’ll feel better later on. You’re still dreaming.”

“Doggone it, I’m wide awake! Don’t you want to hear my reasons?”

“No. Go back to sleep.”

Benny arose, dug his fists deep into his bathrobe pockets and stalked the kitchen floor. “I insist,” he declared, “on being taken seriously around here. I am discussing something that will absolutely uproot and change our whole lives. I refuse to be a pawn. I insist on playing a decisive role in the affairs of this family!”

Molly stared at him.

Benny stopped in front of her. He cleared his throat with dignity, but began uncertainly, cleared his throat and began again. “I think I know how it is with you and Steve,” he said.

Molly leaned forward and looked hard at him. “Go ahead,” she said, “but be careful.”

Benny renewed his tour of the kitchen and Molly watched him closely, turning her head from side to side as he paced from one end of the floor to the other. “Look here,” said Benny, “Steve’s been after you for four years, ever since you got out of high school. And you haven’t got married. Why?” 

“I want to hear your guess,” Molly said.

“It’s because of me,” Benny went on. “You and Pa work day and night in the candy store so I can go on with school. There are five or six more years of the same thing so I can go to university. That’s why you haven’t got married to Steve. You haven’t even had any fun. Don’t think I don’t appreciate that.”

“Stop breaking my heart.” 

“Doggone it!” Benny shouted, suddenly. “How do you think it feels to be The Kid around here? What am I around here, anyway—a king? People cutting out my life for me—pressure all the time! How long can a guy go around being the prize pony for his old man?” Benny stopped abruptly, his arms in midair.

“Well you’re just going to go on being prize pony, Prince Benny—you register for university next week. Now let’s call the curtain down on this act and go to work.” Molly began clearing away the dishes.

Benny followed her to the sink. “Cripes, Molly—four years of college, then four years of med school—do you know what that means? Eight years more still a baby, living on somebody else’s work and time and dough. I’m stealing life from other people. It's eating away at me, Molly!”

Molly said, “We don’t mind.” Her heart thumped. Her mind leaped at an idea. Free, said a voice inside the pit of her stomach—free! “We don’t mind, I tell you,” she said again.

Bennie pounded the table. “But I mind! Listen, I want my own life, understand?” And more softy, he added, “Molly, I’m growing up—things are happening to me.”

MOLLY looked critically at her younger brother, to whom things were happening, and she saw that a pimple bloomed with determined malice on his chin, that his wrists and ankles stuck far out of his pyjamas, that he had long outgrown the bathrobe, that there were sportive and searching young wires on his cheeks and that in his eyes a number of things fought to take over—dignity and outrage, wonder and terror, uncertainty—and tears.

“Yes,” she said, “you’re growing up.”

“There comes a time in every man’s life when he wants to be on his own,” said Benny. He pulled out his handkerchief and blew his nose.

Free, said the little voice inside Molly and she became angry at it. She turned away from Benny. “You want to break Pa’s heart?” she asked.

“It’s my life? It’s got to start being my life sometime!”

The anger came then. “Your life! You little squeak, you haven’t had it long enough to know what a life is and how much time and lost chances are in it. Pa’s planned his whole life for this, too.”

Benny bit his lip. He put both hands on the table and leaned across it. Huskily, he said, “Molly, I want to get married.”

Molly sank into a chair.

“I want to get married. Soon!” repeated Benny. His face was red. His forehead rumpled into corrugations and he gnawed his lip. “Like you and Steve.”

Molly closed her eyes. “Belle?” 

“Belle.”

Molly pinched the bridge of her nose, pressed against closed eyes. “Benny, how old are you?”

“Eighteen and a half,” he said defiantly.

“Eighteen,” she breathed. “Oh, my aching back—eighteen!”

“Listen,” Benny said, “you’d have married Steve when you were eighteen if it hadn’t been for me.”

“Leave me and Steve out of it,” she warned, opening her eyes.

“All right. But it’s been done. Mike and Sally, they did it. Lots of people have. I’m big for my age. I’m more mature, see?”

“So is Belle,” said Molly and shut her eyes again.

“Yes,” Benny agreed, “she is—more mature, I mean.”

“And big for her age,” said Molly.

“Well—yes,” said Benny.

“Belle,” said Molly with her eyes still closed, “has been looking for something, anything, in a decent necktie and pants since she was five.”

“Listen here—” Benny sputtered.

“I know,” said Molly, “I’m talking about the woman you love.”

“We can’t wait,” said Benny. “Another eight years.”

Molly said, “Benny, go ahead and do it."

Benny gulped and his eyebrows leaped. “You said—”

“I said to go ahead and do it, Benny,” said Molly. “You’re on your own. Proclaim independence, Benny. Marry the girl, start looking for a job, start picking furniture, stop looking at other girls. Try the want ads, Benny—you’d make a fine office boy. Two can starve decently on your salary and maybe in ten years you’ll make enough to starve a baby, too.”

A shadow wavered in Benny’s eyes. Uncertainly, he began, “You see, it’s just that I want to be—”

“Of course,” Molly cut in. “You want to be independent. Your own kingdom. It’s a fine idea. I’m all for it. Go right ahead.”

“You mean—” Benny gestured helplessly with his hand.

“Do I have to draw a picture?” asked Molly. “I mean I’m for it.” 

Benny sank his chin into his hand and traced the design on the linoleum with his toe. He looked up twice to dart swift searching glances at Molly, but she appeared to be asleep. Then he got up finally, stretched, cleared his throat, shot another look of appeal at his sister, turned and went thoughtfully and slowly into his room.

MOLLY opened her eyes at last.

Watching a crack that sprawled across the ceiling, she brought herself to with a start when she realized that she was not thinking. “Everybody wants something,” she whispered half aloud. She gave it up at last; she could not think of anything right now except for the tiny, demanding flutter of excitement that began at heart’s bottom and yearned upward like a salmon upstream—and about this she did not dare to think.

She got up and went for her hat, slowly. Benny met her on the way back. His mouth twitched and his eyebrows joined high in a little agonized whorl. He blinked constantly.

“Molly, for gosh sake, tell me what to do!”

“I told you what to do.”

“I mean—that’s not what I mean—it’s—oh cripes, Molly! Listen, I’ll leave it all up to you. Whatever you say. Anything, anything you say!” Molly shrugged and went out. She went carefully down the stairs, balancing on each step.

Steve was ready to put his finger on the bell just as she opened the front door. She stared at him. He hung his head and looked at her in the half-guilty, half-shy, don’t-be-mad way that always made her furious. “Your Pa told me you were home,” he said, “so I came to drive you down.” Silently she went past him and climbed into the front seat of the car, where she sat huddled in her corner. Steve circled the front of the car, flicking dust off fenders on his way, and grunted in beside her. He looked shyly and searchingly side-wise, shook his head and put the key into the lock. His finger hung over the starter button.

“For the first time today,” said Steve, “will you marry me?”

Molly said, “Steve, please shut up for five minutes.”

Steve pressed his lips together, jutted out his chin and pressed the starter button hard. He swung out into the traffic savagely, raced to the corner and brought the car to a plowed stop at the red light. He glared at the light, hating it.

Molly settled herself, jolted by the sudden stop. She watched Steve’s sandy, rough-hewn, rose-hued face, the smooth and solid hands on the wheel, the large Chinese signet ring flicking stabs of light from diamond chips. Steve was made for comfort, built for supporting great weights, tempered to endure. Even his five-year edge of age on her was designed for comfort. He’d endured four years of waiting already, and she was sure he would stolidly wait for yet another four. And as a word could look foolish and strange and meaningless if you looked at it long enough, so Steve could now and then appear, as he appeared now, a total stranger, unrecognized.

“Steve,” she said, “to you I will pronounce deadly words. You are kind and good and sweet.”

Steve grunted, but his face softened. He was actually pleased. She marveled.

He came back to the point in question immediately, growling, “You’re going to slave your whole life away for Benny. We’ll never get married.”

The little voice inside her started singing, swelling her throat. She sat up very straight. “Steve,” she said, “Benny’s not going to university.” 

“Who said so?”

“Benny said so.”

STEVE slid the car into a parking space along the curb, cut off the motor and jammed the brake with one operation. He turned to her. “Come on, give,” he demanded.

She told him then, carefully, weighing it in her own mind, too, everything that she and Benny had said. Steve listened but after a while he took his eyes off her and watched out the window, gazing at some distant thing and rolling his tongue around inside his cheek. He drummed his nails on the steering wheel.

Then, still looking out the front window, he said, “Molly, you cheated.” 

“What do you mean?” truculently. 

“He’s just a kid, he don’t know what he’s doing.”

“He’s old enough. He knows what he wants,” Molly retorted.

“No,” Steve gnawed on each word, “ he don’t know what he wants. He’s being noble, Molly. He’s backing out because of you, see? You could’ve stopped it, Molly. He wanted you to stop it. He’s scared. I know. Molly, you could’ve stopped it. Your Pa’s heart will break.” 

“Shut up,” said Molly.

Steve went on, “Doctor bills and babies and diapers and nagging and rent and mothers-in-law and gas meters and insurance payments at eighteen!” 

“Please shut up,” Molly said.

“It wasn’t necessary, Molly,” Steve continued, turning and taking her rigid hand. “Baby, it just wasn’t necessary. How many times I got to tell you I got more money than I need? The linen business is going like a ten-year fire sale and the old man’s going to retire in just a little while and it’ll be all mine. How many times I got to tell you that? I’ll put the kid through school. It ain’t charity. Like one of my own, know what I mean? He don’t have to do this, Molly. We can get married anyway. It ain’t necessary.”

Molly pulled her hand away and slapped it against her knee. “Married! Married! Married!” The words hissed out like steam. “Is that all I’m supposed to think about? What am I? A piece of goods? Is this all I’m supposed to look for? I tell you I got a mind, too! I got a hunger all my own. Maybe I want to go to university!”

Steve stared at her and his lips opened and closed a few times.

“Yeah—go ahead and stare! Cinderella wants a career! All my life, I tell you, all my life! Cinderella wants to walk to the office in a tailored suit with a brief case. Is it a crime?”

Steve studied his fingernails.

Molly glared out the window, sitting stiffly, her fists clenched now in her lap. “The Little Lavender Prince has abdicated,” she said. “Long live Princess Molly!”

Sieve switched on the motor. Carefully, he swung out into the traffic lane and drove slowly down the street. The candy store was five blocks away and Steve spotted a parking place a few doors off. He pulled into it and shut the motor off again. Then he turned to Molly. “All you got to do is tell your Pa,” he said.

Molly threw him a furious look, struggled helplessly with the door. Steve reached over surely and opened it for her. She rushed out without looking back and went into the store, almost knocking over Mr. Spiegel who was coming out blotting his mouth with a napkin.

PA, AT the cash register, looked up and experimented with a smile. But Molly went quickly by without acknowledging it. She hung her hat on a rack at the back of the store, put an apron over her dress, went briskly to the sink, rinsed out a dishrag and began energetically and silently mopping up the two tables. After these, she ran the rag in a great sweep down the length of the marble counter, getting unreasonably concerned over an obscure crack at the end.

Looking up, she saw Steve leaning against an automobile directly in front, watching her. She made an angry gesture that he go away. He refused, solemnly.

The tears pushed at the corners of her eyes and she bent her head. She turned the hot water on full and the steam rose around her. She heard Pa clearing his throat. The door opened, jangling the little bell. Steve sauntered in, nodded to Mr. Miller and slid onto a counter stool directly in front of Molly.

Molly looked up, hissing. Steve’s eyes were grey and deep. One looked a long way down. Far down at the bottom was stubbornness and a soft pain. Steve said, “A coke, please, Molly.” Then he looked over at Mr. Miller.

Molly slapped the coke in front of Steve, deliberately slopping some of it. Steve steered the glass closer and inspected it. So did Pa. The two men watched the glass as though it had come alive.

The older man reached out and turned the glass so it would catch more light. He nodded his head. “A funny thing,” he said, “how a father can’t talk to his son. Can’t talk, that’s all! Everything chokes up inside and you can’t talk. Enemies, almost. But yet not enemies but trying to climb over a big fence in between. Steve, why is that? You’re a grown man now—tell me, why is that?”

“I don’t know,” Steve said. “I don’t know exactly why that is. It was like that between me and my Pop, too. Sometimes almost strangers. It’s different now, a little. We both want more the same things, I guess.”

Mr. Miller nodded. “Your Pa wanted you to go to university?”

The dapper little jeweler from next door came cheerfully in and climbed the stool beside Mr. Miller. Gaily, he ordered a chocolate soda and winked at Mr. Miller as though this were an accomplishment. He got a stony response. Molly whipped the soda together and laid it in front of the neat little man. Then all three watched him intently as he drank it. Half through the jeweler became self-conscious, finished his drink in haste, paid for it in guilt and went out quickly, darting furtive glances behind.

“No,” Steve said, “he didn’t care particularly about university. But I wanted to go, I had a yearning for it. I wanted to be a somebody inside of me, for myself. I wanted to be a person.” 

Mr. Miller said, “I know just exactly what you mean.”

Steve took another sip of the coke, compressed his lips against the gas. “Well, my Pop wanted me to go into the business. That was his life, the business. That was what he had to pass on to the world and he wanted me to carry on. He started something and he couldn’t see it just stop without a reason. I fought, but I went into the business.”

Molly leaned across the counter. “Pa,” she said, “I got to tell you—” 

Mr. Miller interrupted, keeping his eyes away from Molly’s. “Just a minute, Molly—me and Steve are having a talk. I’m interested.” He put his hand on Steve’s arm. “Steve,” he said, “I got no business to carry on. This candy store is a hole in the head, not a business. But your—what is it, Steve?—your ‘yearning’? That I got. That’s what I got to pass on to the world. All my life I wanted learning and I never had a chance. So, if it won’t take my lifetime, it’ll take someone else’s. I told myself my son would go to college and be a somebody. A somebody inside himself, like you said.” 

Molly said, “Pa, listen to me, Pa.” 

But Mr. Miller bent closer to Steve. “Now with Benny going to college at last, it’s almost like I made it myself. Almost like there’s a meaning to my life. A whole life of fight and struggle and worry—and what have I got? A candy store! You work it hard enough, it’ll give one person a college education. This is the meaning of my life, this is the gift I got to give to my son.”

THE old man swallowed, stopped.

Then he got off the s tool and went directly to a table near the door, where he sat looking out. The tired and ragged tufts of grey hair above his ears looked like old spider webs against the light.

Steve reached across the counter and tried to take hold of Molly’s wrist. She pulled it out of the way. “Molly,” he whispered, “there’s still time. I’ll drive you back to the house. You can talk the kid out of it. You know you can!"

“What about me?” Molly cried out at last. “What about me? What am I around here anyway?”

A rickety alarm clock behind the cash register suddenly began ticking very loudly.

Mr. Miller did not move. He said, very quietly, so that both Molly and Steve had to bend closer to hear, “To my son I give my gift. That is the way it is, that is the world. I can’t explain it, but yet I understand it, like there are laws I cannot explain but yet I understand.”

Steve grabbed Molly’s wrist then and held on. He put his lips near her ear and said, “Molly—Molly, I love you!” 

Molly twisted her head away. “I’ve got rights!” she cried, “I tell you I’ve got rights, too!”

Pa did not move, but stared out at the traffic. His head began to sway a bit, as though rocking an old, familiar and beloved sorrow. “I don’t know,” he mumbled, “I don’t know. I’m an old man.”

Steve put up his free hand and turned Molly’s face to meet his. “Mr. Miller,” he said, still looking at Molly, “Mr. Miller, tell me, what would you do if Benny said he didn’t want to go to university? Just as a teaser, now.”

Pa still looked out the window. “I’ll wait,” he said. “If he doesn’t want to go to college now, then he’ll want to later on. Kids get ideas, they change. I waited my whole life long already. I can wait for what’s left.” His head rocked again. “Yes,” he said, as though to himself alone, “I’ll wait.” He folded his arms across his chest and looked out at the endless and unchanging and varied and yet monotonous stream of automobiles swooshing by like seconds.

Steve pulled Molly closer. “My offer,” he whispered. “I’ll put the kid through college. There’s still time—you can stop him.”

Molly looked at him. “Will you give me a good home, Steve?”

“Anything you want, Molly, anything. I love you!”

“Will you furnish me a bright new kitchen, Steve?”

“Whatever you want, Molly.” 

“You’ll buy me a diamond ring and bracelet? You’ll hire a maid so I can play mah-jongg in the afternoon?” 

“You’re boss, Molly.”

Molly said, “Steve, I hate you.” 

“You’ll feel different later on,” said Steve.

Molly pulled her hand gently away. She went slowly to the rear of the store and took her hat off the rack, but she did not put it on. She held it limply at her side, dropped her apron to a chair and came wearily down the length of the store. Steve joined her at the door, the keys to the car already in his hand.

Pa looked up. His eyes were misty wet and old and pained. He reached out and gently took a hold of Molly’s dress. “You’ll see,” Pa said, “You’ll see. You’ll send your boys to college, too."

Molly whirled.

“The girls, too!” she cried. “The girls, too!” And she went out quickly to the car.

“The girls, too,” repeated Steve and and he followed her.