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Captain Bennett's Folly
By Berry Fleming
The Permanent PressCopyright © 1989 Berry Fleming
All rights reserved.
Down in Georgia in the summer-fall the hurricane girls go by as if competing in a talent show for Miss Tropical Disturbance—Delia, Ethel, Flora that year, and then Gilda; all of us at the box in our Kustom-Kitchen watching her 'slashing and clawing' at South Florida (after 'casting her roving eye all over the Caribbean, making passes at every land mass from the Leeward Islands to Cuba,' the anchor trying to modernize the Weather Bulletin with some lubricity).
Slashing and clawing, it seemed to us, straight for Uncle Nolan Bennett on Pelican Key. Stacy mumbled, No such luck, but nobody else heard him through the wind-whistles, whipping palms, horizontal rain, waterspout surf, and we went on being a little uneasy about Nolan, Nolan with one heart attack already and pushing eighty too—though he didn't seem to push very hard, 'eighty pulling Nolan' we called it, trying to make a joke of his longevity which with all the bequests hanging fire wasn't funny. Sisterbaby said, 'Call him!' and Mamma went to the phone and tried to but the lines were down (next of kin she was, niece—'beloved niece,' the will would say—Iona Bennett when she married Papa, gone to his reward).
Then three or four days later, Gilda trying to start something with Cape Hatteras by that time, Stacy buzzed for me in the front office (Front Office), Stacy Vidrine my stepfather (VIDRINE & BIRLANT, REALTORS: 'Moving up? Settling down? See V-&-B.' Beautiful Glenhaven Hills was our baby). He didn't look up, just sat there with his hat on—one-inch brims that year, canary-bird feather in the band—wiggling the wet cigar at his pad. 'Message here when I got back from Kiwanis, call the operator at Oyster Key. This could be it, Walker, get on the other phone,' picking up the receiver and starting the wheels turning while I was saying, 'Nolan's on Pelican, Stacy,' (sometimes I called him 'Dad' but it killed him, young at heart).
He said the hospital might be on Oyster. 'Or, God forbid, the undertaker, just keep your shirt on—no, miss, I wasn't talking to you,' muttering 'you can take yours off' for my benefit, to remind me what a rascal he was, remind both of us. 'I imagine he'll want to be planted here with the family, you know how he is—was, I'm just thinking out loud now, it may not be the undertaker but who the hell else, except maybe the doctor, same thing,' rocking back with his chin in to run the upper lenses over our great plat of Beautiful Glenhaven on the wall and particularly I don't doubt over the engineer's neat letters spelling 'NOLAN BENNETT, ESQ., 27.6 ACRES' on the tract just west of us (The Home Place, Nolan called it) where Nolan had us blocked until the will could be processed, had the condo blocked, already named—Chalet Regency, one of Mamma's ironclad suggestions-plans drawn, money waiting to get to work (the bank's) interest rates climbing.
We needed the 27.6 now, not just any old time Nolan got round to an inter vivos or going under; we were pouring on our next to last lot, parcel, the house already sold, the U-HAUL up in Ohio ready to hook on. The City stopped us on the east, the River on the south, and the new six-lane on the north that was a feed-in for the Interstate a few miles out. Nolan's line was the only one with any flexibility, any 'give' as we put it (possibility of any). We had talked to him about it, the give, in a delicate backhanded way, Mamma had, the tax advantage of gifts to loved ones (his $30,000 Lifetime Exemption just sitting there as far as we knew), holding the estate down, screwing the Feds, not an easy thing to handle on a long-distance phone. He never got the point. Or seemed not to, hard to be sure with Nolan—looking both foreshortened and exaggerated to me beyond the Gap and making me feel that what I say about him now is almost hearsay though I knew every liverspot on his hands and cheeks; started talking, the last time, about 'a little shrimp boat down here for sale.' 'Little boat? Or little shrimp, Uncle No?' It didn't carry.
We had hardly seen Nolan in fifteen years, once since the heart attack and Dr. Arthur's 'Get away, Mr. Bennett' when Nolan was on his feet again, 'Complete change, get away from it all' (meaning us all as if we were viruses, not the good g.p.'s favorite family, and the other way round), Nolan submissively winding things up, cashing in a few acres of the Folly land down the river (I'll get back to that), cranking up and setting out, the pastures-new look growing in his eyes—eye, I should say, 'Where you going, Uncle Nolan?' we asked him, I did or maybe it was Sisterbaby. 'You got any place in mind, or you just going to let her roll?' He said, 'Schurz. I want to see Schurz.'
And off they went, Aunt Mat at the controls, enough to give anybody a seizure but he had some pills.
We had heard him speak of Schurz, met him once (twice, really), 'the finest noncommissioned officer in the United States Army'—Captain Bennett's First Sergeant, Battery B, 19th Field Artillery: 'Battery in camp at Spartanburg waiting for a commanding officer,' (Schurz filling us in, there on the front porch of The Home Place, watching it unfold in our faces). 'Captain walks in fresh out of Fort Knox (lieutenant then), forms the Battery. First thing he said was, "All right, you men, you can't run a war without a typewriter. Anybody here knows how to use a typewriter?" Hands go up but he sees me first. "What's your name, Soldier?" "Private Schurz, sir." "Where you from?" "Milwaukee, sir." "Wife and children?" "No sir." "Typewriter's in the office, Schurz.'"
'Remember all those potatoes, Schurz? Ten years after the Armistice I still couldn't eat potatoes.'
'Three days out of Norfolk on a converted freight boat carrying potatoes, my God, influenza! "Stay out in the air, Lieutenant." Fixed him a corner in the bags where he could sleep, potatoes kept the wind off. Convoy on the southern route to dodge the U-boats, hotter every day, bodies stacked four deep on deck, what do you do? Lieutenant reads the burial service, over they go. Dock at Saint-Nazaire, hike on to camp at Angoulême.... Battery on a ridge, pulling out, sun going down ...' And so on, until our fidgetings and squirmings shook the old 2 × 12s under the floor.—He sent Nolan a birthday card from Wisconsin every June for thirty-one years: 'Birthday Cheers, Captain!' 'Ninety-nine Happy Returns of the Day!' 'Health and Long Life to the Captain!' the usual thing—square as a concrete block.
When there was no card on the thirty-second Nolan started waiting every day at the mailbox to make Mr. Thompson try a little harder. 'Not today, Mr. Nolan,' clutch out for a light-and-rest-your-saddle. 'Dear me, Thompson, I hope nothing's happened to Schurz, the finest noncommissioned officer ...' and into it again.
He was on the blue-and-white-speckled front steps one morning coming back from the box when a car and trailer pulled up in the sandy yard with a load of towheaded passengers and a basket of pigeons tied on top of the trailer: 'Who's this! My God, it's Schurz!'
He had sold out his business and was headed for Florida where he and the pigeons could get warm, a solid bald little man five or six years younger than Nolan and as many inches shorter and pounds heavier. After that the cards began coming from the Keys—from, I wasn't quite sure but almost was, Oyster Key.
I tried to break it to Stacy but I was too late. 'Who?' said Stacy. 'What's the name? Shoes? Shows?' then, 'Oh!'
Schurz said he was calling 'about the Captain' and Stacy revived enough to say, 'Nothing serious, I hope.' Schurz said, 'Well, sir—' and Stacy cut in with, 'Not another attack!' in his don't-tell-me voice, giving me a hold-everything-now flat of the hand as if sure I would bumble in and scare the thing off the hook.
Schurz said, Well, no sir, not exactly and Stacy asked him what he meant by not exactly. 'I mean I've never seen the Captain quite like this before.'
'Like what, Mr. Schurz? What does he do?'
'Oh, nothing special, it's not that so much, what he does—'
'As what he doesn't do? Yes? What doesn't he do?'
'I couldn't really—'
'What seems to be—the doctor, what does the doctor say?'
'No sir, it's not that kind of thing.'
'What kind of thing IS it, Mr. Schurz?'
Schurz said it was hard to say, he just thought the family ought to know and Stacy swallowed his 'Know WHAT, for Christ sake?' to ask if Nolan was in the hospital. 'No sir, he's at home. Says he feels good. But he doesn't get much sleep, that is, he sleeps but it doesn't rest him. He's been having bad dreams.'
'Everybody has bad dreams nowadays, Sergeant. I'm scared to go to bed at night.'
'Trouble is the Captain doesn't think they're dreams.'
Stacy said, 'Oh, well, now!' throwing me a look as if I wouldn't have caught the significance of that. 'Well, er, that's not too good now, Mr. Schurz, is it? you ought to be able to tell the difference,' giving the cigar a couple of thought-raps on the solid-gold ash tray Mamma had brought him from Australia one Christmas (the only thing she could think of he didn't have). Schurz started to say something but Stacy broke in to ask if there was a shrink on the Keys.
Schurz didn't understand. 'From the blow? No sir, there wasn't much damage.'
'If there isn't I suppose I could have Dr. Mollenbrink come down there check him out, bastard's high as a kite though'—a new-arrival in town with the industries, five or six years, has one of our splits on Zinnia Circle, not a sure-enough shrink, a psychologist, MARRIAGE COUNSELOR his card reads (three times divorced, so he knows the problem—problems—three alimonies nothing in his life with book royalties flushing him out of house and office from his Current Sex Techniques, in which 'never before revealed facts transform the staleness, apathy and boredom of the sexual act into the thrilling, fulfilling, ecstatic moments you've always read about,' Sisterbaby has it in paperback from college).
'No sir, he feels good, looks good.'
'Well, in that case, Sergeant——'
'Mrs. Littleberry takes care of everything.'
'I see. Well, in that case, Mr. Schurz, what's on your—aren't we just throwing away your good nickel?'
'I just thought the family——'
'Is this some neighbor of his I take it, Mrs. Littleberry?'
Schurz said Mrs. Littleberry was the Captain's housekeeper and Stacy said, I see, again, then juggling Mrs. Littleberry back and forth not knowing quite where to lay her down, 'Where's Mr. Littleberry, Sergeant?' Schurz said it was Lieutenant Littleberry (the place sounded like a Veterans Hospital) and he had died on the way home from Germany.
'Well, well, is that so?'
'Buried at Key West.'
'I see. And the Lieutenant's widow is making herself useful round the house?'
'Yes sir, neat as a pin. German, Swiss, Scandinavian maybe. Trims his hair.'
Stacy said excuse him for laughing but he thought Schurz said she trimmed his hair and Schurz said, 'Found some small-animal clippers on a shelf in the dock house when we were painting the boat and oiled them up and——'
'You have a boat?'
'The Captain, yes sir. You see——'
'How old is she, Mr. Schurz?'
'The boat? I don't really——'
Stacy said, 'Look, Mr. Schurz, here's what I'm going to do. Strange enough it just so happens that Walker—you remember Walker Williams, in business with me now' (I was a salesman, the salesman)—'Walker has a business appointment in Miami next week' (news to me) 'and I'm going to let him run down there on the Keys and see you all for a day or two. We love Nolan, you know, miss him, think about him all the time, tell him when you see him, tell him we tried to get him the other night but the lines were down. Worried about him—him and Gilda' (giving it a squirt of sex in case somebody might think he wasn't educated).
Schurz said Nolan didn't know he was calling, he hadn't told him, didn't want to upset him; which somehow seemed to make Stacy think it might not be Schurz's nickel after all but his and he began backing away from the phone to help break the connection, tossing in a few severing waves-of-the-hand phrases and in a minute laying it down.
It was an exaggeration, that thinking about Nolan all the time, but the lot we were pouring on was next to The Home Place and we did think about him every time we looked up from the footings and saw his barbwire fence, or looked across it at the old jigsaw house crying for a bulldozer (round-cornered porch with a candle-snuffer roof, that sort of thing) and the 27.6 acres of underdeveloped counterculture woods and wildness and dead-beat rabbits and self-centered quail that were a torment to Stacy, and to the rest of us too in varying degrees, like the one oil companies feel looking at an undrilled ocean. He was like the man I've read of somewhere bound and gagged in a roomful of strippers. I've seen him glance over there and have to hide his eyes.
Because things had been happening in our town since Nolan's day. New industries, new people, new liquor stores, new houses, new garbage trucks, shopping centers, drive-ins, smashups, superhighways through what looked like Hamburger Heaven, overpasses, underpasses, bypasses, cotton fields modernized into subdivisions; you could almost see the half-starved lines of boll weevil refugees pushing farther west. Beautiful Glenhaven had been laid out on corn land Mamma had from Grandpa Bennett, Nolan's brother (a considerable hope chest from Stacy's point of view though he may have had other reasons for marrying Mamma too); Gopher Hill was the old name, which naturally wouldn't do. It was a bigger parcel than The Home Place, which went to Nolan, but Grandpa had balanced it out for Nolan by leaving him the tract down the river called Bennett's Folly, two thousand acres and a liability at the time what with taxes and being under water three or four times a year from the river-floods and nothing on it but swamp trees and wandering cows and a few small undernourished alligators, nobody having any notion old Senator Jim would get such a half-nelson on the Administration one day they would send down the Corps of Engineers and throw in a dam upstream that prevented the floods and turned the water blue and certainly no notion that Northern Industry would start piling in that liked having a river by the door to dump everything in. Stacy had closed a deal on a few acres of it for Nolan when Dr. Arthur told him to get away, the only land Nolan had ever parted with and he wouldn't have parted with that but for the emergency and probably being a little shaky too; money meant nothing to Nolan compared with land (I remember the way he folded up the don't-fold-staple-spindle-crease Yankee check). He wouldn't have sold us The Home Place if we had been fools enough to get so exasperated as to try to buy it. 'Land's thicker than money,' he used to say, 'and getting thicker all the time.'
As I say, we did get exasperated enough to bring out the give-now-save-later angle which he couldn't seem to get the straight of. At first we thought he wanted to keep it to give Aunt Mat a place she could return to when he had gone to his glory if she didn't like the Keys (which she had given every indication she didn't intend to, Schurz included) but when he brought her home for burial three or four years later we saw something of him (he and Schurz stayed at a motel not wanting to open The Home Place for so short a time—he wouldn't stay with us, said he was too old to be anybody's house guest but I think he really found us tiresome in a kindly long-suffering way) and though we gave out all sorts of hints about needing the 27.6 he went back to the Keys without ever grasping the idea—went by train (trains then), ten times longer but he said he could think better on a train.
I remember I said, 'What you gonna think about, Uncle Nolan?' Mamma kicking at me under the table as if I was smudging a plus clause in the will.
Nobody could say he didn't answer the question—cocked his head to one side, squinted off for a minute not at but in the direction of Mamma's Hong Kong gong (not offended by the sass or more likely not recognizing it) then began by saying he was thinking his way into a mathematical system roughly comparable to differential calculus. 'I hope to contrive, Walker,' he said, 'a method for measuring the relationship between reason and unreason.'
I suppressed my gulp and said, 'Yes sir,'—what else can you say to a testator? (History had been his field at the University before he lost the sight of one eye but mathematics had always interested him; walked into a broken twig on a dogwood tree one night going home to Aunt Mat from a course he was taking in Arabic on the side because he had seen a picture of the dome of the mosque of the Shah of Isfahan and admired the caligraphy).
'To first analyze and systematize the vast areas of feeling—instinct, impulse, insight, dreams, intuition—and then by a sort of infrared symbolic logic to relate the areas to reason. I call it Incalculus, Walker, as a working title; it's fundamentally a study of the utterly incalculable.'
And I said, Yes sir.
'Present-day education, such as it is, is of, for, and by the mind, but that's just scratching
Excerpted from Captain Bennett's Folly by Berry Fleming. Copyright © 1989 Berry Fleming. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
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