Baby Ben in the River

fiction by Sara Johnson Allen

Celia was not her mother. She had four children instead of six. Her mother had dropped dead young as if to prove too many children raised on the stoops of South Boston could exhaust you right over the edge of your early grave.

Celia was not one to brag, but if she was too big for her britches, if she was conceited about anything, it was that she beat her mother’s scorecard several times over. Celia and Celia alone had made her children into what they were today. What they were was more than they should have ever been given the facts. In the order of their births, Celia’s three oldest became an estate lawyer, a dermatologist, and an owner of a successful chain of fast-food Italian restaurants. Celia had proven with her children’s existence that her own claustrophobic life spent behind bullet-proof glass as a bank teller amounted to more than cashing people’s checks.

Today, her fourth child sat across from her at the long table at the White Mountain Ski Resort lodge. Ben was no longer her Baby Ben, but that was how Celia still thought of him. That’s what everyone had called him, out loud, until he was twelve and had to smash one of her empty wine bottles against the linoleum counter to get their attention long enough to tell them that if they ever called him that again, he would sprinkle the shard of glass in their shoes and beds.

Always her baby, although Ben now towered over her at six-foot three. She had been watching his skin tone, and it was finally right again, nearly tan even in January thanks to his father’s genes. His wavy dark hair grew long enough to be pulled back in a ponytail, but right now it was sweeping down into his eyes, also an echo of his father, although Ben being the last didn’t remember him. Celia’s mother had told her to marry Italian to avoid their own men, pale, drunk Irishmen. Make your life easier, her mother had said. How many times could one woman be so wrong?

Celia and Ben sat at the same long table in the lodge that they once staked out when she still brought all four of her children here. Back then, at the beginning of every ski season, Celia traced their feet onto cardboard, cut along the lines, then slid the paper shapes into ski boots at second-hand sports stores. With her fingertips, she traced the space between the cardboard’s edge and the hard toe searching for the best fit for the least amount of money.

Today, Ben moved slow, sat silent watching the other early skiers dropping gear bags on the chairs around them. The slowness was one thing, but she watched carefully for any tremors, or worse, signs of him nodding off.

The pounding of heavy ski boots against the floor and the latching of metal clasps snapped through the cavernous room. Children cried as frustrated parents shoved socked feet into stiff boots. If Ben was bothered by the commotion, Celia couldn’t tell. He didn’t say anything, just sipped the black coffee from the thermos she brought.

Ben rested his elbows on the slightly sticky table-top and rubbed at his closed eyes with his fingertips. He did this so much, the thin skin around his dark, brown eyes usually looked irritated.

Celia wanted him to stop. “Remember when you were ten, and you did your first black diamond?”

He stopped rubbing long enough to look at her. That was something at least so she continued, “You said you thought you were flying.”

Ben glanced away to a young couple about his age next to them bending over their trail map. Using skiing to save Ben would have been more effective if her other three children would have come with her to the mountain, but they were beyond done with Ben. Back when they were all still together, all four of her children chattered about hitting killer bumps in the terrain park, digging edges on the wicked thick ice once the powder was skied off, hitting sick rails and grinding half pipes. She had absolutely no idea what they were talking about, but it stole the breath straight from her chest, this foreign language they spoke to one another. She wanted to say to them, “Go, go faster. Become unrecognizable to me. Prove that I made you into something I couldn’t be myself.”

Without ever saying it out loud, Celia’s oldest three had done just that, becoming the people she actually envisioned. They defied real-life facts of busted bank balances along with their no-good father’s spotty presence that yielded only sporadic, meager cuts from his disability checks.

A mother was not supposed to say some of her children were good and others were not, but her first three were perfect. There was just no other way to put it. On the nights when Celia worked her second job in Manchester, her first three children did their homework before turning on the television. They made the mac-and-cheese and Spaghetti-Os, and made sure Baby Ben ate his carrots or apple slices. The oldest three gave Ben a bath before they took their showers, so he wouldn’t be left with the cold water.

In return, Celia gave them their passports out. She scoured church rummage sales in the wealthier neighboring towns where she found gently used lacrosse equipment and ski jackets with all the right brand names: Spyder, Burton, North Face. She worked Saturday mornings to pay for riding lessons and travel soccer.

Then she also actually got them real passports. They each travelled with a school group first with middle school then high school across the world. She did not have to ask to know that not a single one of her brothers or any of their people back in South Boston had ever even left the country. Some had never left the state.

It was scrappy motherly love from one view, an all-out hustle from another. It was both at the same time. Celia’s “Good Ones” dutifully filled out their applications when it was time to vie for the town scholarships to Fieldbridge Academy.

What mattered most was that it worked.

Except for Baby Ben. It was as if Ben was born fourth with the sole purpose of saying, who do you people think you are anyway? Let me remind you. Leasing a Mercedes does not elevate you. There is no logo, not Ralph Lauren’s little horse or Lacoste’s embroidered alligator, that can make me something else. It seemed to Celia, Baby Ben was intent on cancelling out all the lucky gifts of pride his older siblings had afforded her. He was born, then spent the next 20 years bringing Celia back down to where she had started. She should have hated him for it, but she couldn’t. A mother was not supposed to play favorites, but Ben was hers.

“Is the coffee OK?” Celia asked. The lifts weren’t even open yet, and Ben had already emptied most of the thermos. He drank more coffee than she could possibly keep up with, even when she doubled what she thought would be plenty.

“It’s good,” he said.

“Is it strong enough?”

“Yeah, it’s good.”

“If we come back next weekend, I’ll bring two thermoses,” she said even though that meant she would have to buy a new one. Even if she could afford it now that she was a branch manager, she was not about to pay mountain prices for food. They only lived a short drive away, and it was no trouble to pack a lunch.

“I could get you your own Thermos too if you wanted your own.” Celia hated the strain she heard in her own voice, like she and Ben were strangers. Like she hadn’t used her own weight to brace him when they set his broken ankle. Like she hadn’t cleaned around the missed toilet when he vomited from a reaction to the Vicodin after his wisdom teeth were pulled. Like she wouldn’t lay down her life for his despite the fact she doubted he would even muster a grumbled ‘thank you.’ She would be dead then and what would it matter if he didn’t thank her?

“Are the boots OK?” she asked.

Ben leaned back and looked under the table. “Yeah, they’re good.”

“I was worried they would be too tight around the calf.”

The boots were red and black, uncannily similar to a pair she had lucked into at the Good Will when he was about 6, when he still shuffled more than skied behind his older siblings, crying until one of them came back and agreed to help him get on the chair lift.

“Ma, everything is good.”

Ben didn’t like it when she asked how he was doing. His most recent substance abuse counselor gave her a handout of “productive” language to use with him. She’d tried that before. It didn’t work.

There was no productive language. There was no healing period. There was no “window of reality.” They had been through this enough already for Celia to know this was a tight rope act, a dice roll. More like diving out of an airplane. This time around after treatment, she was going straight for the high octane. Actions, activities, movement to electrify Ben’s body into staying above the surface, to stimulate his destroyed neurotransmitters.

Ben drained the last of the thermos then stood up and rocked back and forth making his boots squeak. “I’m going for first chair.”

She felt warmth rise up in her. “I’ll be right here.”

The idea of skiing came to her on the drive back from the Friendship House, Ben’s latest in-patient rehab facility north of Waterville Valley. On his first night home, she lifted her youngest’s heavy leg, bending it gently at the knee to get his foot on the cardboard. Always a deep sleeper, Ben’s limbs were tree trunks, heavy in her hold. His foot was so long and wide, she had to go back to the recycle bin for a piece big enough to capture the full tracing.

Since his return from Friendship House, Celia had counted the three weeks not in days, but in shallow breaths and startled 2:00 a.m. wake-ups. For the most part, Ben stayed in front of the TV. That was fine with her. When he was home, he was home. She did not have to listen for the sirens reading their exact tenor and interpreting sound waves for their direction every goddamn time the emergency vehicles flew by on the main road.

They lived in the epicenter of an epidemic. There were a lot of sirens.

“This is the epicenter of an epidemic.” That’s what she told her oldest three all the time. They too saw the news, but in this case, they did not see the epidemic. They saw their irresponsible little brother. A mother wasn’t supposed to have favorites, but if she did, it was amazing how the other children would know with absolute certainty who it was.

It was only Ben’s third time through rehab, the other three warned her. Celia pointed out this time was a 16-week program, none of those useless, state-run, waste-of-time 2-week detoxes.

They each tried to talk her out of paying for it.

“A second mortgage is not a good idea,” Celia’s third child said as though selling pizza and chicken parm subs made him a financial expert.

“Benny’s a lost cause,” her daughter said pouring herself a third glass of wine.

Her son, the estate lawyer, said through a crackling connection on a cell phone that made him sound like he was in India not two towns over, “Mom, you have to think about yourself.”

Celia said, “What am I supposed to do? Just let him die? This is your brother we are talking about.”

“Exactly,” her daughter had said. “You remember that we have known him just as long as you, right?”

Celia hung up. No, they did not know him better than she did.

It had been Celia’s intention all along to make her children different than she had been. Still, she had not expected the full extent of their cold calculation. She had not realized that by pushing them up several stations in life, they would be severed from the values instilled in Celia and her five brothers on their mother’s stoop.

· Family above all else.

· Keep the secrets.

· Snitches get stitches.

Where she was from, nothing altered the adherence to any of the above principles. Not the severity of the crime, not extenuating circumstances. Nothing. She never thought to question that “blood was blood.” The four people born from her own blood not only questioned it, they had no sense of it, couldn’t feel it at all.

When Ben returned to the ski lodge, there were ice crystals shining at the ends of his dark hair like pin point stars. Celia searched for signs of what she feared most, that which she couldn’t see hidden somewhere in his baggy parka, whatever he might be able to score on the chairlift or in a bathroom stall where she couldn’t watch him.

Ben carried a blue floral cup from the espresso place on the slope side of the building. Celia almost asked him how he had the money for that, but stopped herself so she wouldn’t be asking the kinds of questions he hated so much, questions that asked one thing but really said another.

“You look so happy,” she said.

“It’s like West Coast powder out there. No ice at all for once.”

Her voice caught in her throat as she said, “Maybe you could ask for an application to be a ski instructor.”

“You have to be way better than I am for that.”

“Well, maybe working in the kitchen?” She changed her mind remembering the kind of people he once brought home from the restaurants where he worked. “Or how about guest services?”

She saw that she had moved too fast. The momentary joy on his face clouded.

“Maybe. I’m going to go back out. I just wanted to make sure you were OK.”

She held up her paperback, a mystery that was easy and obvious, the kind that relaxed her.

“Thanks for bringing me, Ma,” Ben said before returning to the mountain.

She felt a dizzying lightness, what she imagined her children felt out there flying down a mountain. It was working.

Celia was 12 pages further into her book when she heard the sirens. Her paperback dropped to the floor. Through the pane glass window, she scanned the parking lot. She was accustomed to searching for the kind of crowds that gathered around a body. She now carried Narcan in her purse because even if it wasn’t Ben, she could still reverse an overdose for someone else’s kid. She had. More than once. THIS WAS THE EPICENTER OF AN EPIDEMIC, whether her good children ignored it or not.

Celia made it down to the parking lot by the time the ambulance was driving between the buildings to the access road. She followed it to the base between the chairlifts. The crowd in their bright colored ski gear were gathered in the flashing lights of the waiting ambulance. Weather was coming up. Heavy gray clouds rolled across the top of the mountain, ominous and indifferent to any emergency below. Celia had forgotten her coat.

She saw the ski patrol emerge from the base’s first aid area, two snowmobiles pulling empty stretchers behind them. She felt a tightness in her chest release. Two stretchers wouldn’t be needed for someone who had OD’d. It was still possible Ben could have been injured. He could have collided with another skier, but that was something that could happen to anyone, that was something she thought she could live through. The other alternative, she was not sure she could make it through again. This was an epicenter, and eventually the middle would collapse.

The trails that cut the mountain into nearly equal sections were like thick, white ribbons. They made Celia think of flowing rivers. The ski patrol’s snowmobiles fought the steep elevation on the trail in the middle of the mountain, while the dots of skiers flowed down like debris moving in a current.

Celia thought about the River of Styx, which she had just learned about on the History Channel last week. Ben had chosen the show, but then he nodded off next to her by the first commercial break. Not that kind of nodding off. He just put his head next to her thigh on the couch and fell asleep. He always liked Greek Mythology. As Celia learned that Baby Achilles’ mother dipped him in the River of Styx to make him invincible, she let herself reach out and touch the ends of her own baby’s hair where it curled against the upholstery.

Celia did not like hearing about how poor Achilles’ mother risked standing at the gates of Hell to dip him in the River, and still it did not save him. She had turned the television off and sat in the dark room quiet so she wouldn’t wake Ben.

Now behind her, not in the crowd where she stood, Celia heard him. She knew that rough horse whinny of a laugh. She turned to see Ben leaning against a metal door on the lower level of the base lodge talking to two kids about his age. A guy and a girl both wearing blue visors and matching aprons, Celia guessed from the fancy coffee shop. Ben was still in his boots and ski jacket, although his rented skis must have been left in a rack somewhere.

It bothered her that he was smoking a cigarette instead of skiing, but what really got her was the other two. All those years of decoding the systems to dress her children in the right clothes, to put them in the right place at the right time had made her just as much of an expert on reading the other end of the spectrum. That’s where these two were from. The one skinny kid with terrible skin and poorly cut hair. The heavy girl with neck tattoos and a lip ring. She wanted to kill them both. For a moment as she walked toward them, she believed herself capable of it.

Instead, Celia slipped her arm through Ben’s and collected him without saying a word. He didn’t make the fuss he would have in the past about being pulled away. She brought him back into the middle of the waiting crowd. She did not let go of his arm.

In her support group, they talked about enablers. Every single week, they completed the same checklist to make sure they weren’t enabling. At first, she was positive she wasn’t that stupid, even if her Good Ones said she was.

Celia offered up as proof of her tough love that she had tossed bottles of Oxy in the drop box at the police station. She had crushed the unidentifiable contents of Ziploc bags before pouring diet Coke over the powder in her sink. She had flushed her share of heroin down the toilet. She once tossed syringes from a moving car while Ben threatened to open the passenger door and throw himself down onto the asphalt.

She was no enabler.

But in that moment, with the mountain’s many Rivers of Styx flowing white and dangerous in front of her, Celia had to admit she would have done anything to keep Ben to herself. She might have cut the lines herself. She might complain about fake back pain to her own PCP. She would go to his friend Pommo’s house and pay for the crap with her own crumpled bills.

If she was going to fail to save him again, couldn’t she at least be the one to hold him as he drowned? Could she please just choose the river herself? She wanted to at least be granted the right of first refusal by taking back the life she had created instead of watching it drain out from a distance.

Celia said it out loud to the World, the Gods, to the gates of Hell, just in case anyone was actually listening, “He’s mine.”

Ben looked away from the slopes. “Who?”

She shook her head. “No one.”

Everyone stood together waiting to see what combination of injuries would emerge from the higher peaks, what shattered bones, what skulls knocked hard enough to cause concussions.

It startled her when Ben spoke again. “Did they ever tell you how on that first black diamond they left me behind?”

“Who?”

“Tom, Kim, and Donny.”

She cleared her throat. “They wouldn’t do that.”

“You never knew what they were really like.”

She was going to argue with him, but she stopped herself. The truth was she did not know her children anymore. Probably she never had.

“They left me there crying. I was holding on to a tree in a glade, and they went to the arcade or something.” Ben wiped the back of his hand against his nose.

“But when you came back you said you loved it. You said you felt like you were flying.”

“No.” Ben shook his head. “I said, I felt like I was dying.”

Celia shuddered really feeling the biting cold for the first time from not wearing her coat. She held the waterproof fabric of Ben’s sleeve harder in the clutch of her fingers, but he pulled away.

“I’m sorry,” Celia said losing hold of him.

Ben removed his ski glove and took her hand. The flesh of his palm was hot against the cold of hers.

“Same,” he said.

Sara Johnson Allen
Sara Johnson Allen

received her MFA from Emerson College. Her fiction has appeared in PANK, SmokeLong Quarterly, Harpur Palate, Redivider, The Bangalore Review, and was awarded an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction contest. She received the 2018 Marianne Russo Award for Emerging Writers by the Key West Literary Seminar for her novel-in-progress, We Make Them Pay. Most recently, she was awarded a MacDowell Fellowship and a 2019 Elizabeth George Foundation artist’s grant. You can connect with Sara on twitter @saraallen

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