Benson’s Getaway



Jerome Turken

To get into the alley I had to shoulder the wooden blue gate and use all my strength to lift the iron salami counterweight that kept it closed.  When I got the gate open enough I wiggled inside and scooted out of the way and the iron salami plunged and the chain and pulley squeaked and groaned as the gate flew back and whammed the frame, bounced and hit it again.  Uncle Willy once replaced the whole system with a modern door pull, but the next day old Mrs. Silverman made him put it right back.

“How are you supposed to know if a crook comes in at night?” she said.

Walking through the alley to Uncle Willy’s yard I watched the side window in back of her candy store, knowing her shriveled old monkey face would materialize in its darkness just as if it were swung there at the end of a stick.

“Stop or I’ll call the police!” she yelled.

“It’s me, Mrs. Silverman,” I said. “Mark.”

She cupped a small, bony hand over the squinting old eyes, which were so deep in the shadows of her skull that you could barely make them out, and craned her neck and gawked at me for about ten seconds until she was satisfied it was me, then said, “All right, go.”  And her head swung back into the darkness.

Crossing the yard I took take a deep breath, trying to get enough air into my lungs to get past the smell of old Kuznetzov, who used to be the neighborhood iceman before the refrigerator took over.  Slumped in his rickety wooden office arm chair in front of the store, his hands clasped on his belly, he was puffing on his broken and taped together old pipe that curved out of his grizzly white beard like they were part of the same growth.  He more than smelled.  He fumed, from some blend of working sweat, pipe tobacco and more often than not whiskey.  He watched me approach with his one good eye (the other one was glass and didn’t close all the way) and when I got within ten feet of him his face crinkled into a big grin and he put out his squat, work‑rough hand with square fingertips for me to shake.

“Good afternoon, Field Marshall Ferfichkin,” he said.  “And how are you today?”  And he busted into a wheezing laugh, barely able to manage both the pipe in his teeth and the saliva welling up in his mouth at the same time.

“Hello, Mr. Kuznetzov,” I said, trying not to use up too much air.  But then just before going into the store I let the spent air out of my lungs and took a whiff on my own initiative just to enjoy it all the more when the blend of machine oil, benzene, wood, glue, paint and whatever else Uncle Willy was working with finally took over.

It was just an ordinary store with two plate glass windows and double doors a step off the ground.  But it didn’t bring in any ordinary street trade, since it wasn’t on a street to bring any in from.  The sides of the yard were closed off by two dilapidated wooden fences against which Uncle Willy piled his scaffolding and other construction equipment and the back boundary was the front of his store.

Inside Arnie, Uncle Willy’s helper, was busy sorting washers at his work bench.  When he saw me his big, open smile flashed into his face, and his keys, which he kept clasped to a loop on his overalls, jingled as he popped off his stool to greet me over his three pots of geraniums.  Those geraniums took a trip every day.  They started off the morning in a slant of sunlight on a shelf right behind Uncle Willy’s work bench and as the day wore on Arnie kept shifting them around the store right along with the moving sun until they finally ended up on his own table, bathed in a splash of afternoon sunshine.  If the sun wasn’t out he moved them anyway, knowing by heart where it would be any time of the day if it did come out.

“Markie’s here!” he said, his light blue eyes aimed at me but seeming to ray out at everything in general.  He wiped his hands with a clean rag and opened the huge safety pin that kept the back pocket of his overalls closed and took out his record book and marked me down.

“Hi, Arnie,” I said, and ran to the back room and put my books on Uncle Willy’s old wooden kitchen table, then brought my little wooden bench into the toilet with me to stand on in order to take a leak.  Whoever installed that bowl must of figured that nine year old boys still peed in diapers, or something.  The first time I came to Uncle Willy to be watched after school I just barely managed to get my dick over the rim but I couldn’t slant it down enough, so instead of peeing into the bowl I peed right across it, then spent ten minutes cleaning it up with toilet paper.  I must not have done such a good job, because when I got there the next day I found the bench right in front of the toilet bowl waiting for me.

Out front Uncle Willy’s work bench had about two hundred parts scattered around the frame of some machine he was working on.

“Is it going to take much longer to fix that machine, Uncle Willy?” I said.

“Oh‑oh, ladies and gentlemen,” Uncle Willy said to the machine parts. “We’re being pressed by the authorities. You, you lazy little washer, get a move on, or else!”  He was only about a head and a half taller than me and weighed maybe 110 pounds.  Somehow he always looked in motion, even if he was standing dead still.  Maybe it was just his face, his lips puckering and unpuckering, and his eyes slits buried in a sweat‑moist landscape of folds and creases one moment, and then gleaming and popping beyond them the next; his mouth a wet ‘O’ circumscribed by a bunch of larger ‘O’s wrinkled into his cheeks that Arnie called his laugh lines.  “Come on, little washer,” he said, “can’t you see the boss is watching!  Move your tuchis!  Get in there and be quick about it!  You want to get reported?”

“What are you doing now Uncle Willy?” I said.

“What do you think, these two parts are going to stay together because they love each other?” Uncle Willy said. “You have to put these screws in, or else they’re going to have a violent argument and run away from each other, and then who knows what’ll happen.”  He looked at me looking at him with my mouth hung open. “Why don’t you go over and help Arnie a while,” he said.  “It looks like he can use a little company.” And on went his concentration face, which meant, don’t talk to me any more, I’m busy.  If you kept on talking don’t wait for an answer, because the same switch that turned that face on turned his ears off.

Arnie already had my stool placed beside his and his table cleared except for the deck of cards for casino and the big old alarm clock set for 4:15, Feldman’s Appetizer time, and was standing in front of the supply cabinet looking for the right key from what looked like a hundred of them on his key ring.  When he got it open he took a handful of nails from one of the kegs.

How I saw Arnie was, the size of his body was twenty years old, but the way he lilted in his sneakers when he walked looked five years old.  His face always had a few dark patches that he missed shaving, and two or three razor nicks in different stages of healing; that part of him was twenty years old.  But his big head, which appeared even bigger because of the bony prominence of his forehead, was five years old.  His hair was five years old too: cut short and brushed down sideways.  And the way Arnie played casino, that was five years old too.  At first I always beat him because all he could do was match the cards.  Every time I took in two or three cards that added up to the one I played he looked confused.

“Five and three is eight, Arnie,” I’d say.

“Oh, that’s right,” he’d say, but he still looked confused, so I spent a week convincing him that casino allowed that, and another two weeks teaching him some addition, but I’d win most of the time anyway because I could add better.

“This casino is wicked!” he’d say.

Arnie was carefully counting out twenty‑four nails for each of us.

“Go ahead, you can deal,” he said.  “Let’s see who gives who a shellacking.  Well?  What are you waiting for, the moon to come over the mountain?”  And we started playing casino for two nails a game.

About three‑thirty we heard the gate slam, immediately followed by Mrs. Silverman’s screeching.  “Where are you running, you gonif!  Didn’t you hear me I want to speak to you!”

Me and Arnie ran to the open door to see what was going on.  The landlord, Mr. Levine, appeared from the alley, with Mrs. Silverman right behind him, slapping his back.

“How many times do I have to tell you the handle on my toilet chain broke off!” she screeched.  “My fingers are numb already!  When are you going to put on a new one!  Didn’t  you promise!”

Mr. Levine turned and picked her up under the arms and swung her around like she was a child.

“Let me down!” she shrieked.  “Let me down, stupid!”

Mr. Levine put her down and chucked her under the chin.  “Tomorrow for sure, sweetie pie,” he said.  “The very first thing in the morning you’re going to have such a first class toilet chain handle you wouldn’t believe.”

“Just make sure,” she said.  “You want me to call a lawyer?  And stop touching me, you hear?  Don’t think you’ll give me a kitzel I’ll keep quiet.” And she went back through the alley to her store.

Mr. Levine walked around the yard for half a minute looking all serious, then this little squeak started coming out of him that you wouldn’t know was laughing if you didn’t notice his head and shoulders shake or see his face, which took on the look of a gleeful strawberry.

“I’m telling you, this property takes the cake!” he said.  “Look at it, a store behind a store.  If Willy would only take the title I’d give it to him free.  Gratis!  Hand it right over to him, just like‑‑“ and he snapped his fingers “‑‑that!  I’d even keep paying the electric and taxes, I’d throw that in too.  It’s a standing offer, Willy.  What do you say?  Well?  Look at him.  Will you look at him?  He ain’t even got time to look up and answer me, the fool!”  Still laughing he doddered inside the store and over to Arnie’s table and untacked his business card and replaced it with a brand new one.  Then he looked at me. “You’re the only one with brains around here, so I’ll talk to you.  You want to know why I keep putting a new card there?  To make sure it’s clean enough for that fool farting around with a wrench over there to read my telephone number when he has to ask me for a damn favor.  I offered him the property, how many times did you hear me?  He don’t want to take it, the fool.  He seems to have the idea he’s breaking out even by not paying rent.”  Then he called over to Uncle Willy: “You’re not breaking out even, you hear me, you damn fool!  I’m so far ahead of you it’ll take you two hundred years to catch up!”  Then to me: “Look at him, will you just look at him?  He don’t even hear me.  He’s making love to that fuckin wrench!”  He stared at Uncle Willy for ten seconds, then put up his hands and threw his palms out.  “Aa! What’s the use!”  And he turned and walked out.

About four o’clock I started getting the fidgets as usual because my mind got stuck on Feldman’s Appetizer, and I began watching the big hand on the alarm clock.  Arnie saw it and tried to divert me..

“When are you going to bring your violin and play the song for Willy?” he said.  “The … “

“The Fly by Bela Bartok,” I said.

“The Fly, that’s right.”  Arnie smiled.  “The Fly.  It’s like a fly flying, right?”

Mom trusted Arnie to take me on the trolley to the Lower East Side to Mr. Schneider, my violin teacher, every Wednesday.  “There’s something reliable about him,” she said.  But when she went back to work she was leery about trusting Uncle Willy to watch me after school until she got home.  “He’s too unpredictable,” she said.  But she had to.  He was her last resort after the first woman she hired quit because she couldn’t tolerate me; and she changed her mind about the second one because she saw her kick a cat.

“You ought to bring your violin and play it for Willy,” Arnie said.

“I don’t know it good enough yet,” I said.

“Then you better learn it good enough before Wednesday, or else.” Arnie said, “You want Mr. Schneider to start yelling again?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll learn it good enough,” I said, and went back to

watching that big hand.  When it almost reached the three Arnie started

clicking his tongue and wiggling his eyebrows, and when the alarm finally went off he popped off his stool like a piece of toast and both of us went to the back to wash our hands before setting out.  We didn’t have a cent between us because Uncle Willy never bought anything.  He operated by the barter system, the chances being that whoever he needed something from owed him enough for something he’d already done for them to cover the cost; or else knew they’d get it back sooner or later in some first class repair or improvement.

“Don’t forget Kuznetzov!” Uncle Willy yelled as we crossed the yard, meaning for us to get him his stringbeans, which he could munch down raw by the bagful.  Hearing his name Kuznetzov opened his good eye, leaned forward to get up, then closed it again and went back to sleep.

Get a block away and you could smell the rest of the way there.  Those three barrels of sour pickles perked up your nose right through the door.  As soon as we walked in Mrs. Feldman stepped onto the soda box stand behind counter and leaned over and started puttering around with the candy, and I could just barely notice her lips move as she whispered to Mr. Feldman:

“Morris, Willy is here.”  And his bald head boiled up from behind his cutting counter to take a look at us.

Ordinarily Mrs. Feldman wouldn’t let you pick your own pickle.  “What is this!” she’d cry.  “Serving yourself is not allowed, how many times do I have to say it!  What, are we supposed to be left with all the small ones at the bottom!  You take them as they come!”  But when Arnie and I started coming in in the name of Uncle Willy she suspended that rule.

“Which ones would you like?” she said, shuffling the pickles around with the big wooden spoon.  “That one?  That one?  There’s a nice big one.” She spooned four of them out, already knowing how many we wanted.  Then came the hard part.  All Uncle Willy allowed us to get was one more item because mom warned him about spoiling my appetite.  So I stood there with my mouth watering, going crazy over the racks of candy in colored cellophane and sheets of dried apricot and chocolate twists and licorice sticks and blocks of halvah and the row of six burlap sacks filled with all kinds of nuts, trying to make a decision.  Until Mrs. Feldman’s patience gave out and she made a move to wait on the next customer.

“Jelly rolls!” I called out. “No, halvah!”

She gave me that snipped little smile that went off her face almost before it went on and took the block of halvah off the shelf and placed it on Mr. Feldman’s cutting board.  “Halvah for Willy,” she said.

And me already knowing what I was going to say to Arnie even before Mr. Feldman placed the knife and looked up at him for approval:

“It’s not enough.”

“It’s not enough,” Arnie said.

Mr. Feldman moved the knife a little further in and looked at me this time, and the look on my face told him it’s still not enough.  So he moved the knife in a little more and made the cut.  Arnie took his record book out and marked him down, then took the bags from Mrs. Feldman and we walked a few stores down to get Kuznetzov his stringbeans.

All the kids in the neighborhood called Schwartz Andy Gump

because of his missing chin.  His long neck arced directly down from his mouth and his bulging Adam’s apple did tricks, even when he wasn’t talking. As soon as we walked in he went straight into his hissing and shishing act.

“Eckssepshonally nicce sstringbeanzz for ssale thiss sseazzon,” he said, his voice getting higher as he went along.  “Complete ssatissfackshon guaranteed with our eckssepshonlly tassty sstringbeans.”  He was already in falsetto.  He snapped a bag open, almost filled it and rolled it closed and handed it to me without even weighing it, and Arnie marked him down too.

“Anything elsse?  Potatozz?  Tomatozz?”  He was almost squeaking by now.  “How about some radisshezz?  We have ssenssayshonal radisshezz today, sstraight from the farm.”

Kuznetzov was still slumped in his chair.  As we crossed the yard he opened his good eye again and gripped the arm rests of his chair and went into strain, then stalled before even starting to rise and collapsed back down again. In the store Arnie put the stringbeans in Kuznetzov’s place and gave each of us a pickle and cut the halvah into three equal pieces because Kuznetzov hated sweets.

By this time Kuznetzov finally made it to his feet on his second or third attempt.  He lifted his chair by the arm rests, aimed himself at the doorway and wobbled forward.  About half way he started to tilt, looking as though he was going to come in right through the plate glass window instead of through the door, then at the last second untilted just enough to get the chair through the doorway by a squeak, lurching inside after it, his face showing such strain that I was sure he’d bite the stem right off his pipe.  He kept right on going to Arnie’s table and dropped his chair just in the right place, somehow managing to squirm himself around and land in it sitting upright.

Uncle Willy came to the table with his stool and went right into another version of his ‘Benson’s Getaway’ act.  He started off holding the pickle in front of his eyes and stared at it sternly.

“Just a moment, Benson!” he said.  “Just a–  Did you see that!  Did you‑‑  I can’t believe it!  You know what Benson just did?  He stuck his tongue out at us!  Can you imagine!  He stuck his tongue out at us!  What an ugly customer!  Don’t you realize sticking your tongue out is a crime in the state of Google Moogle, Benson?  Isn’t it enough you’re already in prison for stealing your poor old grandmother’s only pair of bloomers?  Well, Benson, what have you got to say for yourself?”  He glared at Benson for a few seconds, his eyes goggled, waiting.  “Well?  Well?  Hm hm, you lost your tongue, did you?  You choose to remain silent, is that it, Benson?  Well then! Well then!  Under the circumstances there is nothing left for me to do but to bring you up on charges before the committee.  Gentlemen of the committee, you saw Benson’s shameful behavior.  You saw it with your own eyes.  I say he is a menace to society.  What should be his punishment?  Have you reached a decision?”

“Exile!” Arnie and I cried out.  Kuznetzov just nodded in glee, his mouth hung open, his pipe hanging on his bottom teeth but still managing to stay in.

“Well!” Uncle Willy said.  “Now you’ve got yourself into a fine pickle, Benson.  What have you got to say for yourself?”

And all of a sudden Benson popped right out of Uncle Willy’s hand about two feet in the air and Uncle Willy swept him back again and the struggle began, and all three of us reversed our stands and started to root for Benson.  Kuznetzov’s face turned pink and white and he went into a fit of silent, wheezing laughter, his belly a huge, jiggling mound of jello.  He got so swept along that he started imitating Uncle Willy, his face actually taking on all of Uncle Willy’s expressions.

“Watch it!” Uncle Willy cried.  “Watch it!  Benson is trying another getaway!”  And there was Benson, popping up and getting caught by Uncle Willy in mid‑air again, completely disappearing from sight then coming back in again and sailing past each of our noses three, four times then disappearing again, with Uncle Willy using both hands and all his strength to hold Benson back.  Then Benson took him by surprise.  He reversed direction and lurched to within two inches of Uncle Willy’s goggle‑eyed face.

“What the‑‑“ Uncle Willy cried. “Why he’s trying to escape through my eye, the scoundrel!”  For a few seconds there was a standoff, Uncle Willy’s hand and Benson quivering in strain, and then Benson started gaining ground.  A fraction of an inch from Uncle Willy’s eye there was another five second standoff, and then it appeared exactly as if Benson was forcing himself right into Uncle Willy’s eye, with me wondering how the hell Uncle Willy was doing it.  Kuznetzov’s laughter, silent until now, broke into sound, a low, gurgling whine that raised in pitch and got louder until it became a sustained squeal, like a teapot going off.  And then he over‑imitated.  He went and jammed the end of his own pickle right into his good eye.  I thought he just joined Uncle Willy’s ‘Benson’s Getaway’ act because he kept right on laughing.  Five seconds later the teapot went off again, exactly the same as before, except his face reversed into pure agony.

“I’m blind!” he bellowed.  “I’m blind!”

Uncle Willy jumped up and poked around his first aid shelf then turned.  “Run to Muroff and get an eye cup,” he said.

With Arnie somewhere behind me I ran the whole four blocks, thinking: He had to go and pick the good one.  Why couldn’t he have picked the glass one, dammit!

When I got to Muroff I shoved myself past the people waiting at the counter.

“We need an eye cup!” I yelled out.

Muroff, a small man with a dark brown mud puddle for a mouth because of the cigar stub he was forever chewing to death, was busy at his prescription table.  Even on the hottest days of summer he wore a vest and tie.  He dropped what he was doing and came to the counter and leaned across it.

“What is this!” he yelled.  “What the fuck kind of racket is going on here!”  His voice was as gruff and tough as he was small.  His customers, male or female, didn’t seem to mind his profanity.  They’d just smile and raise their brows and shake their heads and ts‑ts to each other.

“We need an eye cup,” I yelled.

“So what do you want me to do, drop everything because you need a damn eye cup!  Wait your turn!”

“Come on, this is an emergency!  Kuznetzov is going blind!”

“What the hell are you talking about, going blind!  Why!”

“What are you asking questions for!  Just get me the eye cup!”

“Not until you tell me why!  You don’t go blind for nothing!  You go blind for a reason!”

Just then Arnie came running in all out of breath. “Where’s the eye cup!” he yelled.  “Did you get the eye cup!  Kuznetzov is going blind!”

“Why, dammit!” Muroff yelled.

“He got a pickle in his eye,” Arnie said.

“A what!”

“A pickle.”

“A pickle, eh?”  Muroff’s eyes shifted from Arnie to me to Arnie and back to me again.  “All right, I’ll get you the eye cup but I don’t guarantee it to wash pickles out.  Maybe I ought to give you something to make the eye throw it up.”  He came from behind the counter and pushed a sliding ladder to about the middle of the store and started climbing.  The shelves there looked so cluttered I was wondering how he could possibly find anything as small as an eye cup.  And he was moving too slow.

“Come on, it’s an emergency,” I said.

“If I fall off this ladder and break my ass it’ll be a bigger emergency,” Muroff said.  He had one foot on the top rung of the ladder and the other on the shelf below the last.  He wasn’t holding on to anything at all because he needed both hands to search through all kinds of clutter on the top shelf.  Finally one of them reached in someplace as if it knew about where it was going and came out with a small yellow box that I never took my eyes off of as he climbed down because if he did fall I wanted to see where it landed.  When he reached the floor I grabbed it out of his hand and ducked away from the swipe he took at me with his other hand, and then I was running the four blocks back with Arnie behind me again.

We didn’t even need it.  Uncle Willy had Kuznetzov on a chair beside the sink in the back room and was standing over him holding his eye open and flushing it out using a narrow rubber tube to siphon a slow, gentle stream of water from the sink.

Kuznetzov wasn’t bellowing anymore.  He was moaning now.  “Am I blind, Willy?  Tell me if I’m blind.”

“Of course you’re not blind, foolish,”  He dabbed Kuznetzov’s eye with a towel and wiped his face. “Where do you get your crazy ideas from, blind!  In one more minute you’ll be able to see as good as before.”

Kuznetzov sat there blinking until he blinked the worry out of his face and a crinkling smile into it.  “I can see, Willy,” he said, looking around in wonder.  He couldn’t get over it.  “I can see better than before.  You must have washed a lot of other shit out too.”

When I got there the next day Kuznetzov had his chair inside the store and was sitting on the other side of Arnie, saying over and over:

“How do you like that?  How do you like that”

“How do you like what?” I finally asked him.

“Red flowers,” he said.  “I never saw red flowers in here before.”