Yellow Benji Bag & The Redskin Runaway
Rain is falling outside the kitchen window and Mrs. Frederick keeps pointing her cigarette at Nolan.
“Do you remember the time you ran away from home?”
Her son, Sean, had heard Nolan had moved back to town a few weeks earlier. Nolan accepted the invite to ‘come sit,’ which is what you do in Upstate New York. They’re sitting around his mother’s kitchen having soda and cookies, the same meal she’d served when the two were boys playing rough on the swing set. Nolan doesn’t know how to admit it, but he would've been disappointed if anything else had come out of the cupboards.
The only thing that’s changed about the Frederick house in the thirty years Nolan has been gone are the legalities. Sean has taken over the mortgage; his mother pays rent on the master bedroom. It works for them. She pays on time and he lets her keep smoking in the house.
“You,” she points her Carlton at Nolan. He didn’t know Carltons were still being made but apparently the corner gas station, knowing a long-time customer when they inherit one, still stocks them. “I’ll never forget what you packed the day you ran away.”
“God, that just cracked me up. It’s still hilarious!” She laughs, wheezes, then drags again.
Sean helps himself to another Tollhouse. “What did you take.”
“My football helmet.”
“His Redskins football helmet!”
“I didn’t even like the Redskins. I was a Packers fan.”
“The Packers?!” Sean seems offended. Nolan forgets that he’s moved back to Bill's country.
“Their colors are the same as our hometown. And I didn’t know anything of football. I wanted to take the big G off the side and paint the high school’s Boomerang insignia on. But all the sporting goods store had was Redskins crap.”
Mrs. Frederick hit the Carlton once more then ground it out. “Should’ve thought twice on that one. That thing’s probably a collector’s item nowadays.”
“Is that really all you took, a football helmet?”
“No, I took more.” Sean looked relieved. “I took a toothbrush and a blanket.”
“How far did you get?”
Mrs. Frederick laughs. She remembers.
“I had it in my mind I’d run away to someone’s house.” Nolan had long harbored a deep fantasy of showing up at a female classmate’s farm. Nolan believed that if he just showed up in the tall summer hay one afternoon, the family would dust him off and take him in. He’d live in the barn, earn his way, plant crops, work the soil. The girl would fall in love with him and eventually they’d take over the farm, work hard and die happy with a family and a few old dogs around. It was all planned. All he needed was his football helmet.
“He could’ve run away anywhere. But where did he go..?” the old lady laughs.
“Our shed,” Nolan admits.
Sean’s laughter is drowned by hers. Apparently that long-held memory has been justified. Now she can rest in peace.
“I thought about going to a neighbor’s shed. A couple people, the Hardings had one that was bigger and probably a better source of year-round shelter. But that felt like trespassing.”
“You could’ve come here,” Sean offered.
Nolan shook his head. “Your Mom would’ve seen me and called my parents. ‘Are you missing a son? He’s here, asleep on our couch in his football helmet.”
“I wouldn’t have ratted you out,” said Mrs. Frederick, not at all convincing.
“You were part of the grown-ups network. I couldn’t take that risk. Had to go lone wolf.”
She’d lit up another Carlton. Nolan couldn’t figure how Sean stood it.
“Well,” she said, “I didn’t really see it until after your Daddy moved the whole family away. Then I remembered that day you’d run away. The apple sure didn’t fall far from the tree.”
Sean was quiet and looked away. It’s what most people do when something inconvenient has rolled out someone’s mouth, someone drunk with booze or age or both.
Nolan took the cue to be offended. “What does that mean.”
“Oh, you know what I mean.”
“I’m sorry I don’t.”
“No, he turned the car east, he came back here. After all these years. While the rest of us stuck it out, winter after winter.”
“That’s exactly why I came back.”
She seemed confused by that. “Why,” she said.
“Forget everything the doctors told me. I missed winter. Snow. Curling up in a dark room during thunderstorms. The dandelions overrunning your lawn in late spring. That smell of rotting moss the river makes in summer.”
“Now I know you’re insane.”
“The fact that, not everyone here is in the kind of hurry the way people are in LA. They don't.. wrap up a conversation so they can get back to staring into their phone. Running into someone you know here is something you’re going to repeat to someone else later on, so you make the most of it while it’s happening. It’s kinda like, back here? We’re all retired. In LA, a chance encounter is just something to Tweet about before you move on to the next thing, and the next.”
Sean had been nodding along. “Damn right.”
“How’s that,” she said Sean’s way.
“I hadn’t thought much of it, but that’s why I’ve stayed. I’ve always said ‘it just feels right here,’ you know? I’m comfortable here. Some people would say ‘no that’s bad, you should get out and circulate. See the world!’ But I like it here. Not only in this town but right here in this house.”
Mrs. Frederick shrugged and tipped the ash from her smoke. “And you never left. You went to school and worked and settled in right here.”
Nolan reminded her that he’d gone to school here too.
“Yeah? How many years.”
“Til fourth grade.”
“Fourth grade. What do you know about the world in fourth grade? That’s why when you went packing up your survival kit you packed your football helmet and got as far as your father’s tool shed.”
“It’s the mindset that mattered. I was determined to make a go of it. Besides, I had good company.”
“Who?” Sean seemed intrigued.
Something flew back to him. That had been happening a lot lately.
“Do you remember,” he said toward Sean, “remember we used to take the school bus from Our Lady of Sacred Heart down the parkway, back to our neighborhood?”
“Oh God, that thing was always an icebox.”
“It was barely better than being out in the snow, but I guess it got us around.” Nolan wasn’t looking at him anymore; his eyes had fixed on the dull linoleum beneath the dinette, the same floor they’d run across as schoolboys.
“When I first started at Sacred Heart, I didn’t know you yet. I didn’t know anyone.”
“Every morning my Mom would put me on the bus and she handed me this.. bag. It was like a hand-me-down from my sister. See-thru plastic, yellow trim, like it was the matching number to my sister’s raincoat or something. And Mom had put a little Benji sticker on it.”
“Benji,” Sean reminisced.
“I guess that was supposed to personalize it as mine. Anyway, I’d ride along on that bus, not knowing anybody..”
It was quiet a moment. Nolan couldn’t help but think how, in LA, someone would’ve rushed in with their first nervous thought to fill the pause.
“Mom kept a radio on top of our refrigerator,” he said.
Mrs Frederick tipped her ash again. “That was a thing back then. We did it to expose our kids to music, give them an appreciation for the arts.”
“All it gave me was an appreciation for Top 40. Neil Sedaka. Glen Campbell. We had a great Columbia House cassette collection. I knew all the words to ‘Wichita Lineman’ before I was six.”
“What does this have to do with anything,” Sean asked.
“I’d ride along on that bus day after day, alone. And the other kids didn’t hear me, I think you didn’t anyway, but I’d sit there, quietly singing Top 40 songs to Benji. After a while I didn’t even sing out loud. So long as I had that music in my head, I was never alone.”
“So,” Sean said, “when you packed your helmet up that day and ran off to the tool shed..”
“I had the best company I could’ve had. I was already well-trained in keeping myself occupied. That’s why I moved back here, Mrs. Frederick. I’m not trying to reclaim anything. I remember it all. And it’s mostly all gone. But the land is the same. I really missed being here. And I felt safe coming back because I knew, even though most of the people I knew have moved away, moved on, raised families, some of them died… so long as I have this,” he tapped a fingertip to the side of his skull, “I’ll never be alone.”
Mrs. Frederick seemed convinced. She had her moments. Apparently this was going to be one of them.
“I hope it works out. But I hope you do find someone to keep you company.” She pointed her cigarette across the dinette. “And not just Sean here. I don’t wanna find you two out on the lawn, drunk with a bunch of empty beer cans around you. You should find a nice girl. Because like I said, and I don’t mean to upset you… but your apple might not fall from the tree.”
Nolan knew what she meant. His father’s dementia had kicked in around his 72nd year.
“Well,” he said, “that gives me twenty-some years to get my shit together.”
“Plenty of time,” Sean chimed in. He looked at his mother. Nolan watched her smile the same grin she’d given him the day he fell off the swing set, having flipped almost completely upside-down and landed on his neck. It was the smile of a woman who, no matter what age she might live to be, would always have a way of convincing anyone younger than her that everything was going to be OK.
The rain had slowed by the time the threesome had finished off the cookies and most of the 2-liter soda bottle. Mrs. Frederick went off to ‘watch her shows.’ Nolan claimed to have things to do at the house, boxes to unpack, furniture to position in a welcoming way rather than 'contemporary hurricane.' He shook Sean’s hand at the stoop, got in the car that had delivered him from the west and drove off.
After a mile of highway noise set to the pulse of busy wipers, Nolan’s right pointer finger drew instinctively toward the radio ON knob. It was less than an inch away when he stopped, drew it slowly back, and waited a few moments. Then, as if having tuned in the clearest station in the Chenango Valley, Nolan listened as a Top 40 song he hadn’t heard in years started echoing back in his head, as clear as it had ever been.