Tuesday, January 14, 2020

987 Words of Short Fiction: A Thing From the Past

In the background, maybe coming from a distant room, I could hear the sound of a barely audible piece of music, enough at first only to judge it was classical music and something familiar. Since I rarely found him alone in the house, especially at night, there was usually some kind of commotion going on. It might have been on TV or maybe one of Ben's grandchildren was listening to it on-line (part of an assignment?) though I didn't recall anyone in his family being interested in classical music.

As our conversation continued – I don't remember about what – I found myself paying less attention to what Ben was saying and more to trying to hear the music better so I could identify it. For some reason, the fact I found myself humming along with it but still couldn't think what it was, bothered me.

It was a "Tip-of-the-Tongue Moment" – when I stuck my tongue out, Ben would lean forward and say, "nope, can't see it" – a joke we'd often used when we were kids so many years ago. It was a way of breaking the awkwardness caused by some momentary forgetfulness, but our parents never found it very funny.

"Just wait," their looks would say, especially my curmudgeonly grandfather's, "till you're our age, then you'll understand." (And they were right.)

But Ben couldn't see it this time because we're on the phone.


Ben stopped abruptly. "No... what? I was talking about the cheese at the market. I guess they might've had salami, but..."

"No, sorry," I stammered. "I meant the music – in the background? Strauss' Salome?"

"Oh, that." He paused. I could imagine him suddenly listening to it. It had been wallpaper for him up till then.

"I meant, it's the 'Dance of the Seven Veils,' right? I can barely hear it but I still couldn't place it."

"Yeah, I guess," then went right back to yesterday's trip to the supermarket.

Cheese and its availability at the local Shop Rite grocery store – remembering Stravinsky's great ballet, I'd always called it Le sacre du boutique – was not a topic that held any real interest for me. But I let him drone on because, whenever I talked about my love of music, he was bored but always polite.

Ben Hoyle's parents were what we'd call "Big Cheese Buffs," not that that was anything I or my family considered odd, and trying some new variety was always a major part of any dinner. Ben would rattle them off as enthusiastically as I would list any new composers I'd just heard for the first time. Over the years, I had been a guest at many a family dinner when Ben and I were neighbors growing up, less often after his parents moved to the suburbs and another school district.

Quite often, after school, I would join Ben and his older brother and sisters at the kitchen table for a snack, which was cheese and crackers rather than the more traditional milk and cookies. When we'd sit down to dinner, Ben's mom "presented" standard favorites of cheese rather than risk possible disappointment, spoiling the experience.

I didn't know his sisters, Emily and Ruth, very well, and his brother, Nick, older by about seven years, always treated Ben and me like we were too young for him to bother with. Even their dog, Ralph, some black-and-white random terrier, was a year older than Ben, the true baby of the Hoyle Family.

Ben's mom, Mrs. Hoyle, was a tall, quiet woman who grew up on a dairy farm, often talking about childhood memories. Ben's father was more distant from us kids, aloof and dignified, a teacher.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

What my family did consider odd about Ben's family was Mrs. Hoyle being a Baptist and Mr. Hoyle apparently a "non-believer." They assumed Baptists were country-folk, where, in the city, many Baptists were black. My parents, always finding some excuse not to go to church themselves, never thought "Cheeses" was an issue worth worrying about.

It wasn't so much either of the Hoyle's beliefs but that the combination didn't create more obvious friction than it did. The girls went to church with their mother, and the "men-folk" stayed home.

One afternoon, near the end of the school year, Emily brought home a friend – "boyfriend," Ruth chided her in that annoying voice little sisters always used when making fun of others. "His name's Ralph."

Mrs. Hoyle said she recognized him from church and you could see what was initially alarm quietly shifted closer to approval.

"Ralph?" Ben asked, looking at his sister, confused. "You mean like the dog?"

"How're we ever going to tell them apart," Mrs. Hoyle quipped. It was as if they boy wasn't even standing there.

"Well, I refuse to call Ralph the dog 'Ralph the Dog'," Ruth pouted. "He has seniority. He's even older than Ben!"

"I suppose we could call him 'Ralph the Human'," Ben suggested, Ralph blushing to the roots of his very blonde hair.

"Or instead," I offered, "maybe you can call Emily's friend 'Ralph the Baptist'?"

Everyone else seemed to think I'd made a joke, judging from the way they'd laughed. Even Mr. Hoyle cracked a smile. I hadn't meant to be rude and I suspect the others hadn't either. Ralph – not the dog – apparently'd had enough, running out of the kitchen, the back door slamming behind them after Emily followed.

I tried to recall if I ever saw him around after that, always thinking I'd ruined a good friendship for Emily. She soon stopped going to church, then, probably too embarrassed to face him.

Over the years, it never occurred to me to ask Ben "whatever happened to that guy – you remember, 'Ralph the Baptist'?" I'd completely forgotten Ralph till something reminded me of him and that afternoon.

"So," Ben was saying, "should I pick up some of that for you?"

"Cheese?" Salome's 'Dance' had stopped. "No, that's okay."

– Dick Strawser

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