Escape - A short story

By: 
JANE CLARK, WRITERS BLOC
“Benjamin! Come here,” Gertrude shouted. “Take these oak chairs out front under the awning. They’ll help bring in customers.”
“Yes, dear,” Benny said.
“And take your broom and sweep the sidewalk while you’re out there. It would be nice if you’d think of doing these things on your own without me having to tell you,” Gertrude said, a permanent scowl on her face.
Benny only smiled and followed her instructions while she began her morning ritual of filling the cash drawer in anticipation of another profitable day. If there was one thing Gertrude enjoyed, it was making money.
Benjamin and Gertrude Foster owned and operated a used furniture store in Centerville, a small mid-western town. They lived in a modest apartment located on the second floor of the building. Their marriage had not been blessed with children, so their entire existence centered around the furniture business.
Residents in the area often stopped by the store to sell items to the Fosters, which was one way they added to their inventory. Gertrude greeted all customers and handled all negotiations with firmness, whether it was buying or selling. The stern look on her face was accentuated by the tight bun she wore at the nape of her neck.
Gertrude never trusted Benny to make decisions about the business. He was only allowed to clean the store, load merchandise for customers, and make deliveries of larger items. Everything he did was subject to Gertrude’s close scrutiny.
At the end of a slow sales week, Gertrude reasoned it was because Benny wasn’t doing enough work around the shop. “Benjamin, come here,” she shouted across the room.
“Yes, dear. What is it you want?”
“Business hasn’t been good this week, so you’re going to have to rearrange the entire store. It isn’t good to leave things in the same place too long. People need to see that we’ve made changes. Here’s a list of things I want you to do.”
“Yes, dear,” Benny said as he turned away.
“Just a minute! After you’re finished rearranging things, get your mop and scrub the floors,” she said, smiling coldly.
“Yes, dear.”
Benny dutifully set out to do the work assigned him. Momentarily the barber down the street stopped in the doorway and peeked in.
“Hi, Benny. You’re working awfully hard this morning.”
“Hello, Charlie. Just making a few changes. How’s the barbering business?”
“Benjamin, stop dawdling,” Gertrude called from her cash register at the front counter.
“Yes, dear,” Benny said.
“Business is good as always. I’ll see you later, Benny,” Charlie said, glancing briefly at Gertrude.
As Charlie left he saw Benny pick up the pace of his work. He and all the townspeople found Benny to be a gentle, likeable man. He wore a sweater vest no matter what the season, and his eyes twinkled behind wire-rimmed glasses whenever he greeted visitors. They all wondered how he could tolerate Gertrude’s abuse.
 
Late one weekday when business had been slow and no one was in the store, Gertrude called to Benny. “Come here, Benjamin!” she demanded.
“Yes, what is it now?”
“I have to go to the bank. Can I trust you to watch the store while I’m gone?”
“Yes, dear,” he said as he obediently walked over and stood behind the counter. He breathed a sigh of relief as she left the store.
While Gertrude was gone, a man came into the store to sell an antique radio, the tall floor model style with a wood cabinet and burgundy colored cloth down the front where the speakers were located. Benny remembered his dad having one like it when he was a boy. He and his dad had spent many happy hours listening to baseball games on their radio.
As Benny looked over the old radio, he could almost hear the soothing music of Bing Crosby or Frankie Lane. He remembered how much he enjoyed watching his dad and mom waltz around their living room to the sounds of the big bands.
Benny knew that Gertrude wouldn’t approve of him making a purchase while she was gone, but he really wanted the radio. He offered $50 for it, which the man quickly accepted. With the radio loaded on a furniture dolly, he looked around the store and chose a spot on the back wall where he could plug it in.
There were layers of dirt and grime from years of neglect, but Benny could see the beauty of the wood underneath. That was the way he looked at life in general. He looked for the best in people, too, and tried to see the good in Gertrude, though it was hard to see past her scolding, abrasive nature. She wasn’t like that when they first married. Benny reasoned that not being able to have children had hardened her heart and made her the critical person she had become.
 
Gertrude left the bank at her usual brisk pace, giving the appearance that she had urgent business to tend to. “Were there any customers while I was gone?” Gertrude asked when she returned to the store at closing time.
“No, dear, but I bought a new item,” he said with cautious pride.
“Benjamin! You know I’m the one who does the buying!” she snapped, her eyes flashing.
“Come see, Gertrude. I think you’ll be pleased.” They walked to the back of the store where Benny showed her the antique radio, anticipating her approval.
“Is this what you bought?” she shouted. “I hope you didn’t pay more than $10 for it. We’ll be stuck with this filthy monstrosity until we find someone else dumb enough to buy it! Benjamin, you’re such a foolish man! This is a used furniture store, not an antique shop.” She shook her head and scowled at him. “Do something useful and go lock up for the night.”
“Yes, dear.”
Benny locked the front door, turned out the lights and slowly plodded up the stairs that led to their apartment. He prepared himself for more of Gertrude’s criticism about his inept business sense. Just as Benny saw the good in everything and everybody, Gertrude saw only the bad.
After Gertrude went to bed, Benny went downstairs to clean the old radio. When all the dirt and grime were removed, the beautiful wood cabinet gleamed. It was evidence of the fine quality workmanship of a prior generation. Benny plugged it in and smiled as the area around the large dial in the center began to light up. There was a lot of static; but as he turned the dial, he heard several stations that came in clearly. He kept the volume low enough so Gertrude wouldn’t hear it.
On a station that featured “golden oldies,” Benny heard an old familiar tune from when he was growing up. He was immediately transported to a time in his life when there was joy—a time without Gertrude. As one song after another resonated from the burgundy-clad speakers, Benny’s mind took him back to when he sat with his parents listening to all the great programs of the 1940’s.
When the hour grew late, Benny realized that he should turn in for the night because there would be more work for him the next day. He decided that every night after Gertrude went to bed, he would go downstairs and listen to the antique radio. Since every day of his life was filled with her complaints, this would be the one thing he could enjoy. He knew that she would never allow him to keep the radio for himself, so he secretly hoped that no one would buy it.
Every evening Benny quietly slipped downstairs after Gertrude went to sleep and enjoyed listening to more of the music he loved. It was a welcome change from the daily drudgery of being at Gertrude’s beck and call. Sometimes when he heard one of his favorite tunes, he would sing along in a soft, low voice. When a good dance tune played, he couldn’t resist the urge to get up and dance around the store. The happiness of the evenings carried over into the daytime hours. One day Benny took a break from sweeping the floor and began humming one of the old songs.
“Benjamin, stop that singing and get back to work!” Gertrude shouted.
“Yes, dear.”
 
Two months later Gertrude awoke during the night to find that Benny wasn’t in bed. She called to him from their bedroom, but there was no answer. She walked to the stairs leading to the storefront.
“Benjamin, are you down there?”
Benny jumped to his feet, knocking over a metal shelf which gave away his location.
“Benjamin, what are you doing down here?” Gertrude asked as she rushed down the stairs.
“I was just listening to the old radio.”
“Turn that thing off and come to bed! And tomorrow you need to find someone who will buy that radio, even if you just get back what you paid for it.”
“Yes, dear.”
Benny reluctantly turned off the radio and followed her up the stairs. The next day he asked every customer who came in the store if they wanted to buy a nice antique radio. They all declined.
“You see, I told you that darned radio would be hard to sell. You’re never going to buy anything again . . . Did you hear me, Benjamin?” Gertrude shouted at him from behind the cash register..
“Yes,” was his only reply.
 
That evening Benny again waited until Gertrude was sound asleep then bravely crept down the stairs and turned on the radio. It had become his refuge; his escape from his wife’s endless nagging—the kind that wears away the soul and destroys the spirit.
As the familiar sounds on the radio again transported his mind to a more peaceful world, he began to feel renewed as never before. When Benny spent listening to the old radio, it brought back such pleasant memories that he never wanted it to end. Suddenly, a revelation came to him. I just won’t go back. The thought became a verbal affirmation. “I won’t go back to that hateful woman!”
Gertrude found him the next morning sitting in his big overstuffed chair next to the antique radio with a blank look on his face.
“Get up and turn off that blasted radio!” she shouted. “You won’t be fit to work today after staying up all night. I’m getting rid of that monstrosity so you won’t waste your time listening to it!”
Benny was jolted out of the chair, but he spoke not a word. He shuffled up the stairs and went to bed, leaving Gertrude to tend the store alone. True to her word, that very day she called a junk dealer to haul away the radio.
Every day thereafter Benny ambled silently about their apartment or wandered downstairs to sit in his chair next to where the antique radio once stood. She had taken from him the only pleasure he knew in his life. Benny peered out at the world from that special place where he did not have to listen to Gertrude, but he still heard the music that only he could hear.
 
Jane Clark is Co-Director of Writers Bloc and has been a member of the group since 2005. She is a retired advertising sales representative who enjoys writing memoirs, essays, poetry and fiction. Her work has appeared in several regional and national publications, and a copy of her first novel True Allegiance was donated to the Salem Public Library.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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