Gobsmacked is such a lovely word.
Not only does it have the word ‘smacked’ in it, but it also rolls off the tongue in such a pleasing manner. Conveying beautifully in a single word, the unexpected and staggering surprise that on occasion envelopes one’s person. Flabbergasted comes in as a close second, but I prefer the term gobsmacked in situations such as these – because that’s precisely how Little Ben’s stammering plea left me feeling.
Sitting on the couch, no longer denuded by Robbie’s efforts at nest building, I rode the silence (just as Wood taught me) waiting for Little Ben to embroider the bombshell he’d dropped on my doormat. Beatrice, who appeared equally stunned by Little Ben’s surprising statement, quickly excused herself from proceeding – citing the unspecific excuse of ‘work’.
(BTW, her office door is standing wide open across the hall.)
Little Ben himself was presently standing before Harold S. Ellington’s case and losing, as everyone does, a staring contest with him. “He looks like he’s been through the wars, when did you get him?”
“Actually, he belongs to my roommate Beatrice.”
“Seriously?” Glancing over his shoulder, Little Ben quickly returned for another stare-off with Harold. Unsurprisingly, Harold retained his clean sheet, forcing Little Ben to transfer his gaze onto a nearby shelf of books. “Only you could find someone to room with that owns their own skeleton.”
Letting my incredulity at his words fringe my own. “Thanks?”
Shaking his head, Little Ben rubbed his eyes and turned towards me. “I apologize, that was rude.” Standing stock-still in the center of the room, his eyes skipped past mine and eventually landed on the ceiling above the coffee table standing between us.
“I don’t know where to start.”
Recalling a favorite of Aunt Pearl’s pearls of wisdom, one she’d swiped from a childhood classic, I attempted to nudge Little Ben ahead. “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
Giving an overly bright half-laugh, eyes still focused on the floor above our heads, he forced out three chilling words.
“Nevermore’s in trouble.”
Feeling my stomach drop away towards the center of the earth, I laced my fingers together on my lap to disguise their shaking and did my best to project the quiet calm of a snowy winter’s morning. Reminding myself – the only portion of this situation that is actually surprising is the fact Little Ben is asking for my help… Rather than me coercing him into accepting it.
“I took out a loan…”
“When you bought the MacGregor’s farm?” (For the Sunny Valley Farm Pet Cemetery.)
Finally, swinging his eyes off the ceiling, they veered briskly past mine (again) and latched onto the straight back chair next to the door. Picking it up, he set it across from me, sat down, and started scanning the pictures on the wall over my shoulder.
“No, I paid cash for the land.”
“Cash?” Jerking slightly back in surprise, I wracked my brain trying to recall the last balance sheet I saw (which was a while ago) for Nevermore and the proposed budgets in the propaganda I’d liberated from Little Ben’s office earlier this year. “How much of Nevermore’s savings did you spend?”
“Enough…” Leaning back in the chair and resting his neck on its back, resuming the detailed survey of the paint and plaster directly above his head. Fortunately, he continued on before I felt the need to prompt him. “…that there wasn’t enough money to start phase two of my plans, so I took out that damnable loan….”
“And I take it, that’s when everything started going wrong.”
A barely audible “yes” reached my ears.
Shutting out the wretched sight of Little Ben’s leaky eyes, I closed my own and pictured, in my mind’s eye, the early morning handicraft still drying in the kitchen.
“So, what’s changed?”
The question hung in the air between us for more than a few heartbeats. When it became apparent an answer wasn’t forthcoming, I pressed harder – venting off a bit of pent up spleen in the hopes of prying out any and all answers at a brisker pace. “Damn it, Ben, what’s happened that’s so bad you needed to ask me for help? Me?! The person you laid-off and evicted on the same day?”
Hearing him draw a rattling breath in response, I eased back on the couch and unclenched my fists.
“With all the bad press, picket lines, the sit-in…There’ve been a lot of calls to boycott Nevermore….the bank lost faith and called Nevermore’s loan due.”
Trying to keep my brittle calm from splintering, I focused on the problem at hand. “Okay. How much of the loan is left?”
“A little under two-thirds, the Naturalists and Historical Society protests really gummed up the works.”
“Is there enough left in savings to make up the difference?”
His only response was to lean forward and drop his head into his hands.
“What’s the penalty if you default?”
Watching his shoulders heave slightly in response, I stared in horror at the crown of his bowed head. “For forks-sake, what did you do?” The only rejoinder I received was a considerable surge in quaking. Reigning myself in, by sheer force of will, I rephrased the question in a less verbose and accusatory tone. “Ben, you need to tell me what happens to Nevermore if you default on the loan.”
In a labored voice, he finally pushed the answer out through the hands hiding his face, to the slice of carpet between his feet.
“I had to secure the loan.”
Convincing myself, I needed answers far more than I needed to shout, bellow or yell – I disregarded the buzzing in my ears, the bitter chill of my skin, and the liquid magma flowing beneath it.
Choosing, instead, to center my focus on the rise and fall of my chest to establish enough equanimity to speak sensibly…Breath In…1…2…3…4…5…6…7….Okay, this is worse than you ever imagined…..Breath Out…1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10….so keep your shirt together…. Breath In…1…2…3…4…5…6…7…..you can scream into your pillow later…..Breath Out…1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10…“….How much of Nevermore did you put up as collateral.”
“Do. Better. Ben.”
Needing to put at least a nominal amount of distance between us, fearing I might actually give in to temptation and wring his miserable neck or spontaneously combust, I crossed out of the living room into the hall. Stopping on the threshold of Beatrice’s office, my peripheral vision caught a small movement down to my left. Beatrice, who at some point managed to swap her pajamas for regular clothes, sat cross-legged next to the open door staring up at me.
Setting aside the open magazine in her lap, she rose to her feet. “Bad?”
“Worse.” Flicking a glance over my shoulder, I turned back to meet her questioning gaze again. “Can you sit with him, or on him, if he tries to leave? I need a minute and a change of clothes.”
Lacing her fingers together, she stretched them out in front of her, cracked her neck, then gave me a curt nod. “On it.”
Chuckling, despite myself, I left Little Ben in her talented hands.