Nonfiction by Edee Lemonier
Ben was the too-skinny boy with dark circles under giant blue eyes all lit up. The boy with thin, yellowish wax-paper skin, dark blue veins spread across arms, chest, and oversized head.
He hid behind his dad at the back-to-school ice cream social until we recognized each other. “You!” we said together. I had been his kindergarten substitute a few times before getting my own classroom. Second grade.
Ben spread his fingers loose and used all of them to tap my arm. I could barely feel his fingertips on my skin. “Are you gonna make us write about what we did this summer?” he asked. “Because my dad? My dad, he took me to the Ape Cave to go exploring. Yeah. We went to the Ape Cave to go exploring.” He bounced from one foot to the other. “Hey Dad, this is my new teacher!” Ben looked at my eyes, then the floor. My eyes, the floor. Eyes, floor. His cold fingertips on my skin, tapping. “Dad, look, here’s my teacher and I know her already. This is my dad. He took me to the Ape Cave to go exploring. Yeah.” I shook his dad’s hand. He was a slightly larger version of Ben. I towered over him.
“Here’s your desk, Ben.” A girl version of Ben. Her face was serious, business-like. She was unloading a backpack into Ben’s desk.
“Okay, Lexi. Teacher, that’s my sister, Lexi. Yeah. She’s in first grade. She has Miss Walters. Yeah.”
Lexi was the no-nonsense kid who moved fast, straight ahead while the rest of her family stood around staring, shifting feet, slow-talking about nothing. She was concrete in a family full of abstract. She came over and put an arm around Ben’s shoulder. “Come on, Ben,” she said. “Let’s go put your stuff away.” She led him to his desk. “That’s my desk. Yeah,” he said. He bounced up and down on his toes, tapped Lexi’s arm.
Ben’s stepmom and two-year-old step-brother Kaleb were there, too. Ben’s mom and stepdad. Four grandparents. Step-grandparents. Uncles. An aunt. All smiling. A beautiful example of the Perfect Blended Family.
Ben was one of those kids you fall for fast, and you fall hard. He was the only student I allowed to call me Teacher. “I have a name,” I’d say to the others. He was a sweet kid who tried really hard to get everything right. He acted like nothing hurt his feelings or frustrated him, until it did. Then his mouth would twitch. His lips would disappear. Blink, you’d miss it. But if you caught it, you knew he was upset. And then his giant eyes would get even bigger, and these gigantic tears would roll. His tears broke me in half.
Ben always had to finish an entire thought, even if it was time to leave for lunch or recess or to go to the buses. He’d tap my arm the whole time. If I cut him off, there it was. Mouth twitch.
Knowing a kid like Ben had a supportive family made me feel better. I didn’t have to worry about him the way I had to worry about Jeremy who lived shelter to shelter. Kelli with her homeless dad and crank-addicted mom. Devin whose father’s violence warranted three calls to Child Protective Services before Christmas. And Ashley. And Nick. And Jasmine. Seven-year-olds living in chronic crisis.
Ben’s last name escapes me now, and I feel bad about that.
We all should have known something wasn’t right after parent conference night. Lexi’s teacher, Miss Walters, came into my classroom and asked if I was alone, would I lock the door. She used my phone to call her teaching partner and the principal. The four of us sat in chairs made for second graders.
“You’re not going to believe this,” said Miss Walters. “Ben and Lexi’s family all showed up together. You know how they do.” She bent forward, squeezed her eyes closed and rubbed her forehead. “So after they left, Ben and Lexi’s dad came back in and asked for my phone number.” She sat up, tucked perfectly smooth black hair behind an ear. “The whole fucking family was watching right outside my door.”
The summer after Ben’s third grade year had been one of those where August temperatures got up over one hundred and stayed there for two weeks. Ben’s dad had decided it was time for swim lessons. He tossed Kaleb into the apartment complex pool like a life preserver. Ben’s dad dragged him to the bottom of the pool and let go to force him to swim to the surface. He pulled Kaleb out of the water by the hair a few times so Kaleb could breathe, then pushed him back under. Every time Kaleb cried or complained he was cold, Ben’s dad called him a whiner and tossed him back in the water.
Kaleb’s lips were blue when he was finally allowed out of the pool. He shivered and threw up a lot. Ben’s dad was a Certified Nursing Assistant. The Oregonian said he told the court he would have sent any other patient with Kaleb’s symptoms to the emergency room. For Kaleb, he did nothing. Ben’s stepmom found Kaleb collapsed on the bathroom floor. He died at Doernbecher’s later that night. Cardiovascular shock from hypothermia. Ben’s dad was convicted of first-degree manslaughter and got five years.
When Ben came back for fourth grade, he was all wrong. He found me in the gym before class on the first day of school. He swayed side-to-side. Both of his hands tapped my arm. “My baby brother died this summer. And now the cops are saying my dad did something bad, but he didn’t do it. Yeah. He’d never do it. Yeah. Can you tell them that? Will you tell the cops my dad didn’t do it?”
His smile was gone, and the dark circles under his eyes were near black. His body was puffy, doubled in size.
“I don’t think they’ll ask.” A knot formed in my throat. I wanted to cry. I wanted to say his dad did a horrible thing and deserved far more than five years. I wanted to say his brother deserved better. I said, “I’m so sorry to hear about your brother.”
Ben’s fingertips tapped harder and faster, like fat raindrops on my skin.
“Please, will you tell the cops my dad didn’t do it? They don’t believe me. Will you tell the cops my dad didn’t do it?” He scrunched up his mouth. It moved in and out, and his chin quivered. His eyes welled up, the lights gone out. I pretended not to hear.
The bell rang, and Lexi walked all business-like to get Ben. Her eyes were different, like she looked at Ben, but saw something different, something far away. She grabbed his arm and pulled hard. “Come on, Ben,” she said without looking at him.
“Ben,” I said, “You need to be with your own class, sweetie.”
“Yeah, okay,” he said. I almost didn’t see the mouth twitch.
My new crop of second graders was lined up in front of me. Twenty-five shiny faces waited for me to take them to their new classroom. I wondered who in this group would be the next Ben. I swallowed the knot in my throat and smiled until my cheeks hurt.
“Good morning, boys and girls,” I said. “Welcome to second grade.”