The Songbook of Benny Lament - Amy Harmon Page 0,1

add a stranger. See? It doesn’t sound so good. That note doesn’t belong in the F chord.

I was supposed to be sitting on the bench across the street by the ice-cream cart, lapping up my melting treat while my father paid his visit to Gino. I liked Gino. He’d given me a harmonica once, and I wanted to see him more than I wanted the cone. I recognized the ice cream for what it was: a bribe to keep me occupied while my father went inside the shop. My father told me to stay put, but I had my harp in my pocket, and I wanted to show Gino how good I was.

That’s what Gino had called it. A harp. When I took to it after only a couple tries, instinctively knowing where to move my mouth to change the sound, Gino threw up his hands and said, “He’s gonna be a harp man, Lomento. Listen to that. Kid’s got a knack and an ear.”

I could see my father through the window. His big back was to me, the back he carried me on sometimes, and Gino faced him over the counter. Gino’s face was twisted like he was trying not to cry, and his hands were splayed wide above the display case of his watches and wares. He looked as though he was “reaching for the octave,” as Mrs. Costiera called it, but my father’s knife protruded from the back of his hand.

I wanted to shout, but I didn’t. I was shocked, but I wasn’t. I was scared, but I didn’t run or turn away. I sang silently instead, the words clanging through my head, rhyming and rhythmic, the tune fully formed like it belonged with my lyrics.

When my father came out of Gino’s shop, I was standing there, perfectly still, but my ice cream had melted all over my hand and pooled on the sidewalk.

Pop’s face fell, just like the ice cream, and he took the cone from my fingers, tossed it into the street, and handed me the handkerchief from his pocket to wipe my hands. He didn’t say anything as we headed for home, the sun shining down on our capped heads. It was warm that day, and the streets smelled like shit and sugar. It was September of 1939, and the paperboys screamed about the Germans and faraway places. But there was no war in New York City. At least, not the kind that involved airplanes and submarines.

“I thought you liked Gino,” I said after several blocks. My chest felt as sticky as my hands.

“It’s got nothin’ to do with that,” my father answered.

“It doesn’t?” I couldn’t imagine hurting someone I liked.

“It doesn’t.” My father didn’t seem inclined to explain, and we walked another block before I tried again.

“B-b-but Gino’s nice.”

“He was nice to you. Yeah. But he was nice to you because he’s scared of me.”

That stopped me cold. My father walked ten paces before he realized I wasn’t beside him. He turned around and came back, took my sticky hand in his, and pulled me along.

“Everybody can be nice, Benny. But it ain’t real,” my father said. He sounded so convinced.

“Never?” The stickiness became a tickle that warned of tears.

“No. Not never.” He sighed like the discussion pained him too. “But there’s no such thing as good guys and bad guys. There’s just people. And everybody’s rotten inside. Some are more rotten than others, and some just aren’t rotten yet. But eventually, we all get a little ripe, ya know what I’m sayin’? We all have dark spots.”

“Even you?”

“Especially me.” It didn’t seem to bother him too much. He seemed accepting of the fact. Resigned to it. We walked in silence, his big hand sheltering mine, and he didn’t complain about the chocolatey residue or my slower steps. We turned onto Arthur Avenue, and the lines of laundry stretched across the side streets, from terrace to terrace, waving to us.

“I’m sorry you had to see my rotten today, Benito. I try hard to be a good father. A better father than my father was, but I’m not always a good man.”

“Can’t you cut it out? The dark spots, I mean. Mrs. Costiera cuts the mold off the cheese.”

“I can’t cut it out. No. There’s too much of it. I’d bleed to death.”

“Am I rotten?”

“No. You ain’t rotten.”

“But someday I will be?”

He sighed like he’d gotten himself into a mess he didn’t know how to get out of.

“Yeah. You probably will be. It’s just Copyright 2016 - 2022