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Bill Beverly

Benjamin Franklin, This is a Light Bulb

I am napping the day my college letters start arriving, so I donít know until after everyone else. They read my mail now, Mama and Amy. I am on the back porch, trying not to dream in my sleep. I stopped dreaming basketball since I quit the team to do homework full time. Now all I dream is homework. Uncle Charles tells me, says, this be November. You got till January nineteenth to get a grade point make you enough scholarship you can go to college. Three point five good but is it good enough? Then he says what he always says: times is tight. Canít be no fourth-place negro. Donít got to be the best to go up and stand on the stand. Just canít be no fourth-place negro. Are you applying yourself, he says?

Myself?, I say, yes! Applying myself all the damn time.

I dream anyway, dreaming of something else, and when I wake up I go on dreaming although the house is noisy and Ratcat is standing with his tail in my face. I push him out and close my eyes. This is a dream I dreamt before, parts: this time, though, I am down in the Winn Dixie getting something to bring home. It is when I get to the milk fridge, in the place behind it where the drinking fountain used to be, that I find Benjamin Franklin all bent over and sort of wet, like heís come back from dead or outer space or whatever. "Famed Inventor and Publisher Benjamin Franklin!" I say, like the plaque at school where we put our gum, and I stand Benjamin Franklin up. He has on the britches that they wore, and a shirt thatís all Victoria Secret around the edge, and a gold chain and gold glasses. He is taller than me, about six feet. And for a few minutes he doesnít say anything at all, because he just got back.

In the dream I am his discoverer. It is like "E.T.," I guess. It is like "Terminator" except that he is only Ben Franklin. So I point out that thatís where the water fountain used to be, and thatís maybe how he got wetóflying in through time two hundred and how many years, he slid in through the middle of someoneís drink.

But I got to finish up shopping or else, so we go around the store, where itís all food that Benjamin Franklin has not seen before. He knows the potatoes and corn and onions, all that Thanksgiving stuff, and he knows sweet potatoes and peaches and yams and greens because he and all his friends had some slaves back there, you know it. But the rest stumps him, hah! Because he knows green peppers but not yellow or red, nothing genetic, and no jalapenos, which are Mexican, because Ben Franklin never went to no Mexico, and he didnít have to take no World Social Studies in eleventh grade either. The truth of it is, USA and Mexico were not even next to each other when Ben Franklin was going on. Then Iím like, if Benjamin Franklin likes this produce section, wait till I get him to the freezer aisle. So I lay it out to Ben Franklin, who, being a scientist, wants to know all this and that. This is canned hamóthereís ham inside it, I tell him. This is Ragu. This is Prego. I show him where the bakery is and he doesnít know what bagels are but he knows which bread is from France. We go on through the checkout and I show him Snickers, thatís got peanuts in it, Mounds, Hershey, all that. A Negro invented peanuts, I tell him, didnít see that coming did you, hah! I show him what an M&M is because there are some that opened up and got on the floor. Ben Franklin is polite, because he hasnít seen nothing for the last two hundred years and he wants to see it all. So I show how the cashier, who isnít Cinda or Roberta or anyone I know, punches the price off the tag, and on to how at Publix they got scanners, thatís radar, speed of light, thatís physics, canít be no fourth-place negro so I donít even try to explain that. I pull out some bills and show him the picture of George Washington on there, your old buddy, hah! Too bad I donít have the money with him on itówhat is it Benjamin Franklin is on? The fifty? The hundred? The hundred? The fifty?

When we got out of the store I expect Ben Franklin to go hang out on the bench with those old harmonica guys, since he an old white guy too. But then comes the nice thing, best thing in the dream. Heís coming along. Itís like he belongs to me. Itís like I got Benjamin Franklin for a dog.

But not exactly. In the back of my dream I know that Benjamin Franklin is major. I know he is a famed inventor and publisher, and, like in "E.T.," somebody else is going to want to have a look at him. That he is remembered as a great solver of problems. That he is going to want to meet Bill Clinton and Jesse and Boutros Boutros-Ghali and some new inventors. Maybe get a job. Doctors wanting to look at him and poke him and say Did you come back from the past? Did you come from outer space? What is the last thing you remember? Invent anything lately? Wearing those lights on their heads. Look into my eyes, Benjamin Franklin, they will say. Benjamin Franklin, I am a psychologist.

# # #

Get up, says Amy, youíre behind time. Mom says you better get up now or I can kick your butt. She is standing on the back porch waving her face at me. She is mighty quick on passing instructions but not so worried about following them herself. At night when it is time for me to finish my physics and she is watching TV, she writes equations from the times tables into my calc book, with lipsticks. I get to a page and it says, seven times seven is forty-nine. Big pink letters. Says it backwards on the facing page too. She is twenty years old.

The college letters are from Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Spelman, in Atlanta. We have received your application materials, they say. We will notify you when your applications packages are complete. Uncle Charles wants Emory, which is in Atlanta too. If I get a scholarship, Uncle Charles says, we can drive up in June so Iíll see the place where I get to go.

Mama hugs me. ThenósurpriseóAmy hugs me too. Sleepy-ass motherfucker, she says. Amy, says Mama, that language.

Mama says to put the laundry away. So I am in my room putting the shirts up on hangers, folding the pants in the dresser, dropping the socks in the box underneath the bed. "These are my socks, Benjamin Franklin," I say, "this is my bed. These are Charles Barkley sheets." I bet right now I could kick any presidentís ass at ball that ever lived.

It is like Benjamin Franklin is my dog, because where I go, he has to come with. I am the one who found him, and now he wonít go away. And the President and Boutros wait their turn, cause Benjamin Franklin is my dog, and this is my room. I am applying myself to the job of showing Benjamin Franklin the world. "Benjamin Franklin, this is the sink," I say. "This is a water cup made of plastic. You gotta get your own. Plastic is oil. You donít even know what oil is? Oil makes cars go. You wait until we ride in a car. This is a Nintendo. Or was," I say. I point at the walls. "Thatís wallpaper," I say. "Benjamin Franklin, this is a light bulb."

# # #

I hear her breathe whoops when I turn around to show Benjamin Franklin the light switch and she has been standing there the whole time, listening to me. She goes running down to the kitchen where Mama is. I can hear her telling it down there. For a minute the pans stop sawing away on the burners.

My backpack is already on my desk and I pull my English book out and begin my homework for the night. It is sonnets this time. Is this one Elizabethan? Yes it is. Is this one Petrarchan? I donít know. Flip back. No itís not. I donít know what this sonnet is. Is it Elizabethan?

It is not a difficult job, matching up sonnets. They give you the answers. All you have to do is sound them out.

Next up, Spanish. I am in first year. I had to change because they cut German after I was three years in. The German teacher got shot and they couldnít get a new one, so thatís all. He is alive. He came and visited the Spanish class. He told us, be careful when you go to an ATM. We used to like him and acted all polite and sorry. But when we left, we said, stupid. Everyone know donít fuck around at no ATM.

When Mama and Uncle Charles ask the school psychiatrist what it is and he talks to me and then to them, I think that they arenít supposed to tell me what he says. But they do, all the way home. Mama tells me, He says itís like a dream. He says something in your brain maybe make you a little more, what, creative than the rest. That all it is.

What is concentration? the school psychiatrist says. Did you ever think of what we mean when we say weíre concentrating?

We are walking down the middle of the sidewalk, leaves blowing up sideways, swimming in my eyes like the grain of wood in a desk. No one else is on the street. Everyone else is eating dinner, or inside wishing they were. Waiting for it. Uncle Charles adjusts the collars of his coats around his neck. There is nothing wrong with this boy, he declares, although thereís no one there to talk to but Mama and me.

My paper goes dark. Before I know it, the light is gone and I canít read. When I remember to turn the lamp on, the yellow paper shines, and the words come off easy.

Donít go blind in there, Mama says. Boy, donít go blind.

# # #

When I get called to table, Mamaís voice is high. It is already second call. I go and the three of them are already sitting down, holding their forks up. I sit and spread my napkin and glance up to make sure they started, but all three are looking at me. They look away. There is a problem.

So what else did you show Benjamin Franklin? Amy says finally. It takes her so long before she starts in that I am almost glad when she does. Did you show him whatís in your pants? Is that what took you so long?

Thatís enough, says Uncle Charles.

Amy takes the rice and spoons it out. You ainít going to get to run around with Benjamin Franklin for long, she says. They donít play that in college. Coll-ege, she says. You teaching him all the time and he ainít teaching you nothing. I donít see what he got that you donít.

Amy, Mama says, Quiet down or leave.

Uncle Charles is looking now like he looks when he is walking: straight ahead at the end of the block, each of us in our lanes. There is nothing wrong with this boy, he says now.

Oh, says, Amy, nothing wrong with Benjamin Franklin, this is a light bulb. Give me that scholarship, she says. He invented the damn thing, what he need you telling him for?

Thereís a moment of fumbling around the table. Amy corrects herself at the same time I do: Edison.

It was Edison invented the light bulb, declares Uncle Charles. Mama nods. We are all happy when we get our great men right. I grab the green beans and spoon out my share, weighing them as they steam.

Wooden teeth, I tell Amy, I wouldnít mind learning about wooden teeth from Benjamin Franklin. Thatís one thing he got that I donít.

No, says Mama, spilling water over the side of her glass. That was Washington. It was Washington had wooden teeth!

Uncle Charles barks, you knew that, didnít you? Eyebrows all cocked up, heís almost on top of me now.

Oh yeah, I tell him. We begin eating again. This is dinner with my family, I imagine saying silently, like it was my job to teach Ben Franklin everything now. Benjamin Franklin, meet my sister Amy. Here you go. Take some beans. Not too manyóyou been dead a long time.


Bill Beverly studied at the University of Florida; he is completing a book about fugitive criminals in literature and film. He works in Washington, D.C.

 

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