Yeah, I’m Benjamin and I’m coming up on my anniversary. Been sober eleven months and thirteen days, since my twentieth birthday. My sponsor says I got to share more at Meetings. Not sharing at Meetings is denial, he says. Denying the “400-pound gorilla”—that’s his pet-name for the disease: the gorilla on your back. It’s been on my back since I was a kid in short pants.
Growing up it was just Ma and me. For dinner we used to make Spaghetti and watch TV-movies. She liked The Color Purple and A Streetcar Named Desire. But I hated how she used to cover my eyes with her hands to hide the filthy parts. I said, “Hey, let me see. I’m man enough.” Then I’d strut the TV-room and beat fists against my chest, puffed out like Marlon Brando. She’d laugh and pinch her nose and say “Stella”.
We did all right until I turned nine. That’s when Lou Keemya showed up. I took him for a part-time boyfriend. Ma’d get home from work beat, say she didn’t feel good, wasn’t hungry, went straight to bed and locked the door. She’d be on the phone, talking about “Lou” this and “Lou” that. Many nights, I’d fall asleep with TV-dinner and The Godfather. That’s when Lou sneaked in, I figured, when I wasn’t looking.
I’d wake up hours later to cold peas and infomercials for dick pills and ShamWow. Sounds came from Ma’s bedroom—Lou slamming her around, I was sure. From outside the door, I heard grunts and the slap of her body against the tile floor of her half-bath.
I’d kick and punch the door and scream, “Leave her alone, Lou, you sonofabitch.”
Ma’d quit crying. Tell me through the door that no one’s here and to watch my mouth, please. I figured she was covering for him because she didn’t want me to know. But I felt terrible, hurting her with my words. I’d zip it. Pressed my ear to the wood, trying to hear him breathe. “Lou, you leave her alone, or I’m calling the cops.”
Through the door Ma’d say, “It’s almost over. Be a brave man, now. Why don’t you go fix yourself some juice?”
But the fridge’d be bare of juice. So I’d rifle through the medicine chest for Dimetapp. At least it tasted grapey like juice.
In the morning, Ma’d come out and find me curled up in front of her bedroom door. She’d pat me awake and put me in her bed, cover me up and nuzzle her forehead to mine, tell me everything’s all right. Her eyes were lying though, but I didn’t get why till later. She looked bad, knees bruised. Lou’d already be gone. I never saw him, but I could smell him. Smelled like puke.
Other nights, I prayed to God that Lou’d just leave us alone. I slept with my little league bat under my bed, in case he came around, break his knees—Scout’s honor.
So I quit waiting for Lou. Decided to find him myself. I pictured him dangerous like Don Corleone, figured I’d know him when I saw him. I used to stuff a steak knife in the ankle of my Luke Skywalker boots, the ones with the Velcro up the side. The blade stuck through the top of the boots, so I covered it with the leg of my jeans. Then I was out the door, cruising the neighborhood on a hand-me-down ten-speed. Couldn’t barely see over the handlebars, but I didn’t care. “Lou?” I hollered over the handlebars at any man who passed.
I remember this Oriental lady, Mrs. Lin, up the street. Me and her had this routine. I’d ask if she’d seen Lou and she’d say no, but why don’t I come to eat pork and rice. “You want polk and lice,” she’d say. I never laughed at her accent though. She was too good for that. She didn’t eat with a knife and fork; she ate with sticks. Bruce Lee ate with sticks so I figured it was okay. Once Mrs. Lin helped me make one of them Wanted-Dead-or-Alive posters you see in Westerns: Million $ reward for S.O.B. Lou Keemya, it said. When I showed it to Ma, she shook her head and tears came down. She cracked a damp smile, called me her brave man and asked me for the umpteenth time to mind my language, please.
None of it worked though. I never saw him in the neighborhood or anywhere. He wouldn’t face me man to man.
But one day I rolled in after Ms. Lin’s. This black car was in my driveway. My heart started pounding, blasting out of the cage. Finally got him, I thought. Only I wasn’t thinking. I yanked the door back and busted into the TV-room. Ma was on the couch, upset. This tall stranger was standing there. He had black hair, a briefcase and a dark suit.
“You,” I said. “It’s you.” I crouched down on the rug and unVelcro’d my Skywalkers.
He turned to me, his nametag sort of glinted, and he said, “Oh, and this must be Benjy.”
“You talkin’ to me? Are you talkin’ to me, you prick?”
He said, “Young man. Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” like accusing me in my own home.
Ma’s waving her hands at me, telling to me to watch my language, but I was seeing red—all red. I pulled out my steak knife. Up-and-charged at his upper-thigh like a fucking Samurai.
Turns out the guy wasn’t Lou at all but a social worker, Stanley D. Niles. He reported me and Ma to Child Protective Services. CPS’s report said only an unstable home could produce a nine-year-old capable of stabbing someone in the leg six times, while telling him over and over that he’d “sleep with the fishes”. They diagnosed me “troubled” and her “unfit”. I admit going Corleone on him was bad on my part, but Ma was not unfit. It’s not her fault I got the wrong guy.
CPS put me in a new home. Gave me new parents, Greg and Cassandra, church people with no kids of their own. Greg was bald and skinny. He had glasses, a mustache and long fingers and rules against TV. Cassandra asked me to call her Mom. I told her I already had a mother – with all due respect – who I needed to get home to because, without me, Ma had no one. I said, “Lady, I got to protect her from Lou.”
Then she looked at Greg and held her mouth and got weepy like the sun’s not rising tomorrow. Then Greg started wagging his finger at me. “There is no Lou Keemya. He doesn’t exist.”
“You make no sense,” I said. What the hell did Greg know? He didn’t even watch TV.
“Your mother, she—” he got flustered, his glasses slipped down his nose. “Your mother has leukemia. Cancer.”
“Cancer? That’s dying, I’m not stupid. Ma’s not dying. She’d have told me.” I told him a hundred times.
We went around like that. Finally, they dropped me off at this broken-down hospital, where Ma was laid up in a room with an old lady. They had Ma hooked up to machines—all these tubes sticking out of her. “Ma?” I said. Her eyes didn’t open. She was knocked out. “Ma, wake up.” I figured, of course she’s sleeping, there’s nothing to do here. There wasn’t even TV. “Ma. It’s me, Ben.” She woke up a little and nodded at me. “Greg says you’re sick. He makes no sense. Right, Ma?” She looked thin, all bones. “Nah, you’re fine. Only these doctors aren’t feeding you right.” I tried to make her drink juice. I tipped the cup to her mouth. Juice dribbled down her chin and puddled in the sunken pits where her collarbones stuck out.
“Ma, drink. Why can’t you drink?” She scrunched her face like she was about to cry, but couldn’t. She was all dried up. What kind of place was this? I screamed, “Where’s the doctor?” I stood up and threw the cup against the blinds. A fat nurse ran into the room with a clipboard. “I got to talk to the doctor.”
“Calm down, young man.”
“She’s sick over here and starving. Can’t even drink her juice. Who’s the doctor?”
“Calm down. The doctor has other patients.”
I slapped that clipboard out of her hands and showed her my teeth.
Leukemia and chemotherapy knocked her around. She’d been trying to tell me all along, only I didn’t want to hear it—not even after the funeral. I still kept an eye out for Lou. Once the idea got ahold of me, I couldn’t shake it. Not until I was ten and stole my first drink: Cassandra’s brandy from the cupboard above the fridge. I mixed it with a juice box. “Fuck you, Lou,” I said and slugged it. With brandy heat in my chest, I strutted Greg’s living room. Thought I looked like a real man. I felt light and strong, but only because I couldn’t see the 400-pound gorilla climbing on my back.
Anyways, I’m Benjamin and it’s almost my anniversary. Thanks for listening.
Ted Wesenberg is an MFA candidate at Northwestern University and reader for TriQuarterly magazine. He has studied fiction writing at the University of Minnesota and University of Wisconsin, where his literary fiction was a selected finalist in the Page Contest at the 2014 Writers’ Institute. He lives in Chicago.