Benjamin had resolved to not look at the sidewalks and ground so much. His mother reminded him daily. He had the habit of examining a tiny alteration in the sidewalk or the curve of downy feather, a twig that had been snapped by others’ feet and now lay forlorn. He admired stones. He saw things others did not, in fact, whether it was a last starling gathering up steam for the group gossip or the muddy tip of a grey cat’s tail as it slunk home after a night of stealth and thrills.
He wanted to keep the neighborhood clean, too. It was like a hobby, picking up shards of broken glass or a dropped business card, the pamphlet that never made it into a mailbox, the lost sock of a toddler. He thought about the sock a bit. It was late September and he imagined a chubby pink foot turning pale then bluish as the parent, innocent but carelessly so, rushed the stroller back home. Only then would the loss become apparent. So the blue and white striped sock went into a box, one of many where he stored all finds until his mother sneaked in and tossed some of it. She didn’t fully support Benjamin’s need to collect oddities, remnants and cast-offs. He didn’t like her invasion of his space.
“Why do you think nature casts them off?” his sister, Vi, asked impatiently. “Nature sheds feathers, leaves, dandelion fluff and so on when they aren’t useful. They aren’t special! People do the same, of course, but no, you have to pick up what they just let go.”
Benjamin gave her his best superior look which wasn’t hard since she was just eleven and he was going to be thirteen in two days. He knew he was not like other kids. How could he not? He carried a toad around in his jacket pocket when he was four and named it T. Troll. The preschool teacher who discovered T. Troll (T. for Ted but no one asked) found Benjamin smart and sweet, but thought it alarming that he had this relationship with a toad. Talked to named toad often, and knew many things about it she did not. His father told him this story when Benjamin skipped second grade. He was appreciated by a handful but bullied or tolerated more often. Ninth grade was not likely to be any more pleasant than all the others. Perhaps less.
Meantime, it was an ordinary Wednesday morning. He was passing the Gunderson house on his route to the bus stop when he first spotted the beer bottle. He stopped and examined it but didn’t touch it. It was a brand his parents didn’t drink, likely one of the local microbrews the city loved to boast about. He didn’t, as a general rule, take home bottles unless they were unusual or he planned on throwing them away. He had only ten minutes to get to the bus. He glanced at the big house. It took up the whole corner on the south side of the street. Mr. Gunderson was a doctor and he was fussy about his yard. Benjamin found it disconcerting to let it clutter up the grass but he went on.
On Thursday morning he was studying a slug making its painstaking way to the Gunderson’s fence when he stole a glance at the spot where the bottle had been. It was undisturbed. He bent over it, admired the colorful label and wondered if there might be a way to peel it off but the bottle was none too clean. That was going too far. He readjusted his backpack and ran to the bus stop. He thought about that bottle all day, why it was still there, who had dropped it, if it had beer in it. Who in the neighborhood enjoyed a beer only to toss the empty on grass? Well, moss to be technically correct. It had to be a passerby but not a homeless one; they found and kept them.
Friday was his birthday and arrived sunny and clear; leaving for school felt like good for once. He had tentatively made a friend the day before, a new guy from England who liked math as he did and cycling and, best of all, amphibians and insects. Benjamin didn’t cycle much but he was willing to if needed. He had hope for the first time that the year might be okay.
As he neared the Gunderson’s he hurried, the paused. The bottle had not budged. No one else had thought to remove it. He thought it was time to take action so he picked it up and peered inside, the sour smell of beer wafting up his nose, His upper lip curled. This was what kids at school often talked about, how alcohol made all the difference. He had even been asked to a beer party by the joker behind him in biology but he’d declined. The kid laughed, relieved. The being asked was what counted he supposed; he was the youngest in ninth grade.
But what if? Benjamin wondered. What if he went and a beer was offered and he was the only one who had never drunk a beer? Not even tasted one? They would be able to tell by the way he hesitated. And then they would make him drink it and the nasty stuff would spill on his shirt, maybe make him sick. He didn’t drink because he was not allowed. It wasn’t that he always did what he was told. But it seemed reasonable to him. He could have a drink when twenty-one. He had other things to do until then.
But he stood there and felt the morning sunshine and heard the wind in the high branches so he wiped the mouth of the bottle, put the bottle to his lips, let cool drops of beer roll onto his tongue. He spit it out. It tasted ten percent less than terrible and nothing to be excited about. He was about to toss the bottle when he caught sight of someone at the brick wall of the Gunderson place.
“Benjamin, I can’t believe you drank that.” Mr. Gunderson cast a large shadow with his six foot, two-inch frame.
“Oh, no sir, just found the bottle, and then, well…”
“Not so good, huh?”
Benjamin stood up taller and lifted his eyes to the man’s head. “No. Not good at all.”
“That’s what I like to hear. You may learn to appreciate it as an adult. Or not. Hand that over so I can get rid of it. I’ve been meaning to put it in the trash. And better eat a mint on your way to school.”
Benjamin picked up the bottle and gave it a toss; it landed right in Mr. Gunderson’s hands and he smiled.
“Have a good year, Benjamin. I expect great things from you one day. Tell your dad I said so. Don’t worry, I won’t tell. You all should come for dinner.”
Benjamin watched him amble across the yard and disappear. He wondered if it was possible to retrieve the bottle later. Keep it as a souvenir. If his potentially new friend asked him if he had ever tasted beer, he could say yes. He would pull it out of his closet and show him. On the other hand, it sure stunk. Benjamin took off down the street at a gallop. He didn’t want to be late.