Friends are a special gift, a mysterious connection between one person and another. Their presence sustains us long after they are physically absent. Some friendships have to be worked at to acquire and sustain while others are dropped on our hearts at the most unexpected times and never quite leave, living and breathing in our memories. Ben’s friendship was the last kind.
Ben became my friend the year the Ford plant came. I really needed a friend that summer, the year I was eleven. Suddenly the house, which had been so chaotic and overcrowded with sisters and brothers and nieces and nephews, emptied out like an October seed pod. In that strange lull of abandonment I really struggled. I read a lot but you can only read so much. I particularly missed my 13-year-old brother who had moved on to friendships and activities with other boys that could not include a pig-tailed girl.
But Ben made up for a lot.
Ben was there because we had the good fortune to be in the path that ran from the existing utilities to the new Ford plant location. This was a windfall as they paid Mom $500 for the right-of-way to ditch right through our place. It was a fortune to her and she put it to good use by having Fred Simmons put in some in-door plumbing. But that was later.
All that summer and fall a crew dug and mucked their way through Missouri clay from the highway a mile west, up the gravel road to our house, across the side yard, down to the crick, across the hollow and up the opposite slope toward Grandma’s. When the crew moved on Ben was left to watch over large piles of pipe and to continue widening and squaring off the ditch, shoulder-high to him, that snaked down and away across the yard. I liked to stretch out on the side of the ditch and watch Ben. To me he was bigger than life with skin so black his arms, glistening with sweat, glowed blue in the July sun. I chattered away to him, satisfied to get an occasional “hmmph or chuckle out of him.
I told him about my cat that died of worms and how I caught my shirt on fire at the stove and about the possum my brother and I caught in the box trap last winter. I recounted all the plots from the books I was reading. I told him about the time my sister cooked hotdogs wrapped in cheese and a piece of bread with a toothpick stuck in them to hold them shut. I said they didn’t taste all that good to me and they looked like dog turds.
He stopped shoveling that time and looked me in the eye and told me not to talk like that. I asked him what for and he said, “That’s no way for a little lady to talk.” Well that was something for thinking about. I wasn’t sure any ladies lived at our place but I didn’t mention that to Ben. I figured maybe his mother was a lady. I tried to imagine Ben’s mother and the lady she would be. I kept thinking up this really large, very black lady in a slinky dress and a cigarette in a long cigarette holder. So I asked him about that.
I waited ‘til he got back in the digging rhythm again; jab with the spade, stomp with the foot, swing up and out over the side of the ditch, and asked him right out. “Ben, was your mother a lady?” He stopped digging again and looked at me kind of funny and then looked over the side of the ditch like he was looking a long way off and said, “Why yes, I ‘spect she was.”
I asked him what all a lady did and he said it wasn’t so much what ladies did as what they DIDN’T do. And he wouldn’t talk anymore about it.
Also Ben sang. He sang mostly hymns I didn’t know and it was not like any singing I had ever heard on records or at our Methodist church or at the country music shows. When Ben sang it was like the sound came from everything in the earth. Like the grass and the trees and the dirt he was shoveling all got mixed up with the clouds in the sky and came out of that great chest of his and echoed across the hollow in the most beautiful sound I ever heard. I loved it when Ben sang.
Ben was still there after school started that fall and even when the first snow came. He had stretched a little tarpaulin out from the back of his pickup and kept a fire going on a pile of rocks by the tailgate with a coffee pot on it. It was early for snow, wet and way over the tops of my shoes when I left for school that morning. Ben hollered at me when I got almost to the corner and asked me where I was going. “”Well, I’m going to school,” I said. “Clear to the highway?” he hollered and I said, “Well, yes”.
I waved at him and went off down the hill but before I got to the bottom I heard his old truck coming behind me and he stopped and said, “Get in chile, you got no boots for your feet. Get in, I’ll carry you to the bus.” And he took me the mile to the highway and stopped just this side. I could look across the highway and up a ways and there were all the other kids waiting at Leimkuhler’s Gas Station for the bus but Ben wouldn’t go any further. I said, “Why, Ben, we’re supposed to go right over there.” And he said, “No, little girl, I’ll just be letting you out here. Now be careful crossing the highway.“
It was many years before I realized the risk to that gentle man, of being seen “carrying” a little white girl in his truck. When I got home from school that night Ben, his truck and the diminished pile of pipe was gone. Snow covered the long serpentine bulge of the newly covered ditch. I had known he would be gone. He had told me they were finished and he would be gone. But I missed him very much.
Sometimes when I thought about Ben I would try to remember what I liked best to remember about him and I could always pick one day.
One morning after getting punched and slapped around pretty good for who knows what reason, I ran from the house and threw myself on the clay piled beside the ditch. In the single minded despair of a child I ignored Ben and lay sobbing into the dirt.
Pretty soon I tried to quit crying and scrubbed at my eyes with my shirt tail until I realized Ben was cussing. I didn’t know Ben could cuss and I was very sad because I thought he must have heard what had happened in the house and was mad at me too. But when I lifted my head and stared over the side of the ditch into Ben’s face I knew that it was not me he was mad at. I didn’t know who he was mad at but as long as it wasn’t me I didn’t care. I laid my check against the cool, cool clay and Ben began to sing. I think he was singing for me and it was so beautiful.
The song was about someone who could fly, fly away and the sound rose over the side of the ditch, sang across the hollow and filled my head, and my world, and I was alright.
And that’s how I remember Ben.