Originally written on May 15, 2013
Recently published in Voices Literary Magazine – Spring 2016
Recently published in Voices Literary Magazine – Spring 2016
Like Moses walking through the parted Red Sea, conversations churned on either side of Ben like violent waves. Between the rows of lunch tables, the aisle was calm, peaceful.
The red Penny Drive coffee can huddled close to the lunch line’s register for protection. “Penny Drive” in black marker, in his father’s perfect handwriting, lay imprinted on the can’s ribs. Ben could tell that his father had paid close attention while writing that the “n”s since they looked identical. None of their humps went above or below the others. His father, the pastor of the sponsoring church, had chosen the most starved-looking coffee can for a donation drive benefitting the local food pantry. The smooth, rounded Maxwell House container at the church looked too “healthy,” his father had said when he brought the pestilence-stricken can to Ben’s school.
His father, Father Ernest McElroy, had marched down the same cafeteria aisle as Ben did now, only the torrent of conversation had been reduced to silent church pews that morning the week before.
Children huddled for warmth after getting off frozen buses with slush built up by the wheels. Many were bundled in their colorful winter coats, wool gloves, and cartoon-themed stocking caps. The cafeteria’s large plate-glass windows were rimmed with streaks of white snow like toothpaste squeezed onto a toothbrush. Yet as Father McElroy walked prominently through the open room, a wintry chill followed behind him, making children nearest to the aisle shiver, sit up straight, and their entire tables shush. Ben was drug along to the front of the congregation with his father’s arm behind his back.
“C’mon, boy!” his father hissed. He snarled as he spat the words at Ben.
Children’s wide eyes were focused on Father McElroy standing at the front of the cafeteria. Occasionally, they would drop to scrawny Ben. It was his father’s nature that caused such a reaction in children. His towering, bulky stature and booming voice made anyone believe that a wrathful God would commit them to an eternity of damnation, even children. He could silence a room by stepping foot in it. But, just as he could instill the fear of God in anyone, Father McElroy had a way of persuading people to forget that side of him. His sharp tongue could meld praises and seemingly kind conversations from its routine of criticism. If he knew how to instantly strike someone down with his words, he could deceitfully build them up, too.
Ben’s eyes scanned the tile floor, occupying his mind with the scratches, scuffs, and smudges within the white boxes. He tried anything to avoid the rows of eyes. He had already heard his father’s sermon in the car: You have to take care of the house of the Lord first, Benny. Then God will take care of everyone else. It’s trickle-down economics!
Those words sat heavily, guiltily in Ben’s stomach and made him nauseous.
“Good morning, children! Ladies…” Father McElroy proclaimed to his spectators, nodding to the lunchroom aides. Most of them were moms of students. Many of them attended Harrington’s Church of God with their children. Many of which were seated among the plastic pews before Ben and his father. All familiar faces.
“Now, a lot of you know who I am. And I know who you are. But for those who don’t, I am Father Ernest McElroy, pastor at the Church of God on West Ingull Road. You can call me Father McElroy, though. This here is my boy, Benny…”
Children giggled sporadically and softly about the room. Ben shifted his weight away from his father’s side. It’s Ben, Dad, ran through his mind for the umpteenth time that morning.
Father McElroy gave his son a light shake of the shoulders. He looked down at Ben. His salt and pepper goatee created a tight frame around his deceiving smile. He then turned back to the crowd and resumed his chipper speech. Ben wanted to be in the back of the room. He could see his friends grouped beneath the cheesy motivational poster of a soccer player scoring a goal. “Success” was written across the bottom in neon green and blue splatter paint font.
Ben swatted his arm towards the ceiling as if to hit a passing bug and let it fall as quickly. That was the best wave he could muster with his shame-heavy body.
“Some of you may have classes with Benny here,” Father McElroy continued. “Now, he and I have put together a Penny Drive for your school to participate in.”
A couple more giggles rumbled through the youthful congregation at Ben’s nickname. Ben saw his friends muffling their chuckles with their coat sleeves, which only made his head bow closer to the floor.
Father McElroy picked up on the children’s teasing, and made sure to utilize it. The church needed some extra funds after his “Pastors’ Retreat” in Sacremento a few weeks back. Too bad his plane landed in Las Vegas by mistake. It was all God’s plan after all.
“It’s very easy! As a pastor and a man of God, I like to help those in need. Do any of you like to help people?”
Father McElroy’s arms raised quickly from his sides, palms up, as if raising the generous spirit from within the children. A slew of raised hands, accompanied by the sound of scraping coat fabric, followed the pastor’s rising arms. Those who hadn’t initially raised their hands quickly joined the others to avoid smiting.
“Great! I thought so,” Father McElroy bellowed. “Well, all Benny and I are asking you to do is put a couple extra pennies, nickels, dimes, or even quarters into this ol’ coffee can. You can’t miss it! It says “Penny Drive” across it. And I know most of you can read fairly well from what I remember in Sunday School. Especially you, Margaret.”
His firm index finger pointed at a tiny brunette girl in the front row. Her curls were pinned beneath her pink stocking cap and tucked against her head by her glasses. Her body compacted in from the center, her hands became glued together by their backs and wedged themselves between her thighs, and her ear dropped to her shoulder. She was bashful.
Father McElroy walked over to the stainless steel check-out counter. He set the coffee can down hard enough that a sharp echo pulsed to the back of the cafeteria and returned to the front, but he did it with a smile.
“As you can hear, the can’s empty now. But come next Thursday, just before you all head home to enjoy your Winter Breaks, which will be filled with delicious foods and expensive presents, I would hope that you would feel caring and giving enough to donate a couple coins here and there this week to help the hungry. Please keep that in mind that there are others in our community who are less fortunate while you eat your meals this week.”
Ben nodded along, his chin bumping against his chest. His thrift store Power Rangers t-shirt had speckles and cracks across its colorful graphics. Out of his peripheral vision, he saw that most of the other kids had their heads bowed, too. His father wasn’t giving a sermon or reciting a prayer, and yet everyone bowed before him and his words.
He patted his left jeans pocket, carefully avoiding Father’s attention. A faint jingle of change rang out. His mother had managed to sneak him two quarters that morning so that Ben could treat himself to the chocolate milk that the other students indulged in every day. He only got plain white milk with the prepaid meal plan (father’s orders to live without surplus), but Ben always desired the liquid chocolate that his friends enjoyed every day. Well, thanks to his mother’s daring move, the day to taste the temptation finally arrived.
Father McElroy glanced down as Ben patted his quarter-laced jeans pocket. Instantly, his eyes narrowed at the round impressions through the denim before springing open again. Ben hadn’t seen his father notice his pocket’s secret treasures. A small smile of anticipation for that day’s lunch and its sweet accompaniment warmed his cold face.
“So, Benny,” his father said, patting his son on the shoulder again. This time, Ben was rattled by the gesture. His father’s large fingers squeezed into his shoulder slightly like a tree securing its roots into the soil. “Why don’t you lead by example and make the first donation?”
Ben’s smile vanished as soon as his father’s words slithered into his ears and sank their teeth into the crevices of his mind. He looked up from his jeans pocket and met the room of eyes locked onto his every movement.
Ben’s line of sight instantly dropped to the tile floor again, avoiding the stares, tracing the floor’s scruffs and scratches to his father’s polished leather shoes, up his tailored dress pants, his lintless suit coat, the stubbly beginnings of his jowl, and finally to his ashy gray eyes. His broad black eyebrows cast shadows over his harsh eyes, but by tilting his face upwards, back towards any congregation, Father McElroy’s eyes look like a gentle-hearted man’s– warm and welcoming. Now, the shadows over his eyes created empty crevices that pried a response from Ben. He shook his head slightly, so slightly that only his father noticed the resistance.
“The quarters,” his father spat. “Now.”
Father McElroy’s words were quiet and close enough together that, to the audience, they merely sounded like he had coughed, or had muttered words of encouragement to a shy “Benny.”
“Yes, sir,” Ben murmured.
Slowly digging his hand into his pocket, Ben tried to crane the quarters from their nest. The two coins moved from one pocket corner to the other as they tried to evade his fingers. The fact that he was struggling with such a simple task in front his classmates, under the scrutiny of his father’s scornful eye, made his face feel hot and flushed. He finally managed to extract the two silver coins from his pants, his prized tokens for later indulgence, and held the two out in his palm. The two George Washingtons were faced up at him, but they looked away from Ben’s father. They didn’t want it to end this way either.
“That’s my boy!” his father called to the audience, placing a firm clawed hand on Ben’s shoulder.
Father McElroy extended his free arm back, guiding Ben towards the red coffee can at the check-out counter. It sat beside the cash register that housed numerous quarters. Why couldn’t two of those be donated instead? Ben hadn’t made a connection with any of those. These two had made a promise to Ben’s mother, who made a promise to Ben. These quarters had a job to do. And his father was ruining all of that.
Ben felt the eyes on his back, but the heat he felt at the nape of his neck could only come from his father’s glare, which was hidden from everyone else. He reached the coffee can and peered down into the aluminum well. The rusted spots in the bottom looked like the blue eggshell paint in his parents’ bathroom, only the can’s were of a dusty red. It would serve as good camouflage for a penny seeking cover; otherwise, it would only be a tetanus hazard for whoever had to sort and count the coins at the church after the Penny Drive was over. It’d most likely be Ben.
He held his closed fist over the can’s opening. The quarters hugged his fingers; they didn’t want to let go and fall into the metal cell.
“Well, we tried,” Ben whispered, sighing as he released the stress built up in his shoulders from the audience and his father.
His grip on the quarters loosened and each plunked against the can’s bottom, sending a similar echo to the back of the cafeteria before returning to its starting point. Only this time, compared to his father’s echo, Ben’s carried disappointment in its reverberations.
“Let’s hear it for my boy Benny, everyone! Come on, round of applause!” Father McElroy said, yet again, in his god-like tone. The room emitted a short burst of clapping upon the order. “So as a reminder, please follow Benny’s example today at lunch and for the next week. You’ll give to those in need more than you can ever understand. Thank you, everyone, and see most of you on Sunday! God Bless!”
Father McElroy moved away from his imaginary pulpit and looked down at Ben, the shadows obscuring his eyes again.
“We’ll talk about this later. Your mother, too.”
And he walked away, back through the cafeteria aisle that was now filled with school children on their way to the class.
Father McElroy towered over their covered heads and bright backpacks. He was a shepherd leading the lambs to salvation, and geometry, as he made his way out of the building. Ben remained next to the coffee can, which now radiated heat from the forced donation. He watched his father leave the cafeteria, go into the hallway, and out the windowed main entrance to his professionally-cleaned Mercedes parked in the bus loop. A cigarette was burning from his lips before he even reached the curb.
Ben was so close to having chocolate milk for once.
Now, a week later, the Penny Drive had come to a close. Coins could be seen peeking over the can’s brim from anywhere in the lunch room, even from Ben and his friends’ table beneath the soccer “Success” poster.
Ben made his way through the lunch line with a tray of dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets, a banana, a rounded mound of mashed potatoes and gravy, and a carton of bland-tasting two percent milk. He waited until everyone was gone from the line before he neared the cash register. Mrs. P stood there, menancingly. She watched over anything money-related, including the Penny Drive jar. The shimmering silver coins stood out from the mound of bronze. Two shiny quarters sat upon the dull peak. Mrs. P rubbed the base of her nose with her plastic glove as Ben approached her.
“Yeah, hi,” she said, her voice raspy and monotone, “that’ll be two twenty-five.”
“Um, hi,” Ben replied, gripping the sides of his Styrofoam lunch tray tighter. “Mrs. P, are there any more apples? There’re only bananas out here.”
Her eye twitched with indignation from the question.
“Are you sure? My dad said I needed to eat more apples. Could you check, please?”
Mrs. P rapped her fingers on the check-out monitor as her lips squished towards one side of her face. Ben’s father had gotten her son out of jail a few months back solely by calling the police station and telling them to release them. Harrington was a small community.
She relaxed her stance.
She waddled her wide frame around the check-out booth and down the back of the serving station before disappearing behind tall metal ovens and industrial-sized sinks.
“Thank you,” Ben called after her.
As soon as she was out of sight, he did one quick sweep of the surrounding area to spot any watching eyes. All the other lunch ladies were in the process of cleaning up after the day’s rush. Ben heard the hissing of sink sprayers and the garbled adult conversations going on in the back. The students were busy devouring their food in seconds, or burying their dinosaur chicken nuggets in tar pits of ketchup. The lunch aides were tending to a crying girl who had gotten barbeque sauce on her favorite shirt.
Here was his chance. He didn’t care if this meant explaining this sinful act to God on Judgment Day; he was going to enjoy chocolate milk for once. His father, Father McElroy, would have to do with fifty cents less for his personal church expenses. Ben snatched the two quarters from the top of the can’s pile, which made the crudely formed peak dissipate, but only by a little. It was hardly noticeable. Hardly. At least Ben hoped it was unnoticeable.
“We’re outta apples, Ben,” Mrs. P yelled over the hissing appliances as she shuffled back to the check-out; Ben stiffened with shock at her sudden reappearance. “You want anything else?”
“And a chocolate milk,” he replied, dropping the quarters into her hand. “Please.”