- Letter regarding 1313 Rue Ste. Louise
- (sent by Patrick Benson to his wife's sister
(Vera) and her husband (Harry).
- Dear Harry and Vera:
- I mentioned this story in my phone conversation
with Vera yesterday. As you can see, it was published in our
monthly newspaper (Leisure Knoll News).
- The title simply means 1313 Saint Louise
- Some of it is fictional: my mother was not
Sicilian. My father was not as much of a wino as I made him.
But there was such a person as Ben; he never worked; he
did leave his wife and take up with the French Canadian woman
in a Montreal "sporting house"; and I did stop
off there on a ski trip.
- Please let Lorrie, Frank, Chris and John
see it and tell them I'd like some feedback, ok?
- Have a great holiday,
- Pat B.
- Short story
- We were trained from an early age to call him Uncle Ben,
although he wasn't a relative, because to address him properly
as "Mr. Martinelli" was simply beyond us kids and usually
led to uncontrollable giggles. He was someone Father had met
while serving with the American army in France, during the First
World War; they immediately became drinking buddies on discovering
they lived in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn. After the war
Father went back to his former job as shipping clerk in the warehouse
of a chain of food stores. Ben, on the other hand, never seemed
to have a job and therefore had plenty of time to visit our home.
His wife, Anna, earned a small wage in her job at the local candy
factory, and they lived in a cramped apartment with his father
who paid the rent out of a meager pension.
- Ben was of middle height and portly build with a florid complexion
and thick, black hair loosely combed back. He usually wore a
stylish three-piece suit with a gold watch chain prominently
displayed over the vest - and a big smile. (I often fancied that
he resembled the movie actor, Edward Arnold.) He'd always drop
by in the afternoon of a Saturday or holiday, always without
notice, and always carrying two gallon jugs of his father's homemade
red wine. Although Mother would never touch the wine, he'd present
the jugs to her anyway, solicitously placing them in the center
of the kitchen table as though they were sacred vessels. I half-expected
him to genuflect. Next to the jugs Mother would plunk down two
eight-ounce jelly glasses, her way of announcing to these topers,
Ben and my father, that they were not to drink in her dining
room, nor to use her good crystal goblets. If she did occasionally
unbend and promise biscotti and cheese to go with the
wine, Father would have to remind her more than once before it
- By the third glass, Father's old helmet was on the table,
and he was showing us exactly where the German sniper's bullet
hit and ricocheted off, while Ben was recalling the time he and
Captain Delamare got drunk together and were lost for days in
- Around dinnertime Father would flop onto the couch and doze
off at once. Mother would have Ben lift him to slip a cushion
under his head, and then she would pointedly ask, wasn't Anna
waiting dinner for her husband? Ben would then leave after adding
the unopened wine to the row of jugs in our central hallway,
and handing out coins for candy, a dime each to my three younger
brothers, and a quarter to me as the eldest son. I suspect he
often left disappointed because he knew that if my father were
awake, he would not let Ben, or any guest, leave the house without
a bagful of groceries from our larder.
- With the Depression several of our neighbors were thrown
out of work but Father's company hung on until July, 1932. (Tears
were in his eyes the glorious summer day he locked the warehouse
doors for the last time.) To Ben the news merely meant that Father
would be at home more often so Ben started visiting more often.
But, as I had begun high school that September, and needed the
kitchen table to spread out my homework, I resented being displaced
each time Ben chose to drop in. Something had to be done, and
Mother was the one to do it.
- One day when we were alone in the kitchen, I began by asking
her how it happened that Ben didn't seem to be hit by the Depression
even though his wife had now been laid off. That touched a nerve.
Thrusting her face almost nose to nose with mine, she stared
into my eyes and bunched her fingers in a questioning gesture:
- "Eh? That's what we'd all like to know! He's a sponger!
Haven't you figured that out for yourself? Maybe he's on relief;
maybe he's using the money his sister and brother kicked in to
feed the old man. Who knows?"
- It took a while for her to calm down before I could explain
my problem with Ben's visits. She said, "Don't worry, figlio
mio, I'll tell your father and Ben. From now on he comes
here only on weekends, all right?" That was a load off my
mind. Her word was law around our house.
- As to Ben's being on relief, Mother quite casually asked
him during a subsequent visit whether he had considered applying.
Ben swore he'd "never go on the dole" and the subject
was dropped; but neighborhood gossips said he was ineligible
for public assistance because he had refused the WPA's offer
of a job as common laborer.
- During Christmas week of that year, Ben came in carrying
a bottle of store bought Zinfandel but, this being the Prohibition
era, the wine had the legal content of 3.2% alcohol. Father and
Ben tasted some, agreed "it wasn't fit to gargle with,"
then tested the jugs in our hallway until they found one that
had not turned to vinegar. To my parents' surprise, however,
Ben limited himself to one small glassful. He was having troubles,
he said. His wife, Anna, who had gone upstate to live with a
sister, was suing for a decree of separation and maintenance.
Where would he get enough money to support her? To keep out of
jail, he was practically being forced to hide in another state.
- "Well, where do you think you'll go?"
- "I've got some ideas, but nothing definite. I'll stay
- Once or twice over the next few months we heard that Ben
had been seen in Manhattan but the rumors were not confirmed
until Mother's brother Mike, who played piano in a Greenwich
Village bar and grill, said yes Ben comes into that bar. "He
lives over in Jersey and comes into the City. But only on Sunday.
You know why? Because this state has a law, you can't serve a
subpoena on Sunday and you should see the hags he brings with
him! Madonna mia!" Mike wrung his hands. "Each
one uglier than the last. You ask me, I think he's a gigolo!
No, don't laugh. I've watched them slip him a few twenties"
- he pantomimed a pickpocket slipping a victim's wallet to a
confederate. "That money pays for dinner and drinks, then
he puts down a deuce for a tip, and the rest stays in his pocket.
And his clothes, Tonetta; I wish I could afford his clothes!"
- When Mike finished, Mother wondered whether someone had been
keeping Ben all along. "It figures," she said, "he
always had so much free time."
- Sightings became less frequent until, by the end of a year,
he seemed to have disappeared altogether. Later on, a new set
of rumors put him in Canada, living with a French-Canadian woman,
and that was the last we heard until 1937, when he came back
to the old neighborhood for his father's funeral. He hadn't changed
in the last five years except for the addition of a pair of black-rimmed
glasses and, I suspected, a good set of false teeth. His visit,
on a Sunday and without notice, became an occasion for my mother
to bring out the wine and serve it in her small crystal glasses.
Only one glass each, she insisted, for old time's sake. Me she
sent out for fresh buns and served them with coffee in the dining
room, another first for Ben.
- Mother had been looking forward to a cozy chat with Ben about
his new life. She did not want younger people at the table and
when I pulled up a chair, she frowned to warn me off. Seeing
that I intended to ignore her, she lapsed into Sicilian with
Ben who occasionally translated for my father's benefit. (That's
when I decided that, in addition to college French, I would elect
Italian in my Junior year.)
- Fifteen minutes into their conversation, from which I gained
nothing, I braved the dirty looks and interrupted:
- "Did you say where you live now, Uncle Ben?"
- "I didn't say, but it's up in Montreal. 1313 Rue Sainte
Louise," he added with a touch of pride.
- "Oh? You have a job up there?"
- "Sure. I work. Just like everybody else," he chuckled.
- "But don't you have to be a Canadian citizen to work
- "Hey, kid, what they don't know won't hurt them, eh?"
- "Could I come up for another couple of day's sightseeing?"
- "Anytime, and you can stay at my place. Write me first
though, at that address. You remember? Write to Ben Martineau,
- When Ben made ready to leave he caught my eye and jerked
his head toward the door: he wanted to meet me alone on the street.
Uh oh, I thought, now he'll retract his invitation, but I stood
up, said I needed some air and would walk Uncle Ben to the subway.
Our of the corner of my eye I noticed Mother's quizzical gaze.
She had caught Ben's signal, there would be questions when I
- Once in the street, Ben dropped his usual hearty manner,
kept his eyes down as we walked, and spoke out of the side of
- "It's tough making a living in Canada these days,"
he said. "You have to make a buck any way you can. That's
why the woman I work with started a "sporting house"
where she and I live. I didn't want you to be surprised when
you came up so I'm telling you but nobody else. You're old enough
now to understand and keep things to yourself, capisce?
- "Capito," I answered. He turned on his high-voltage
smile and handed me a five-dollar bill. "Attaboy,"
he said. Thus did I mature from kid to responsible grown-up in
half an hour.
- Back in the house mother was waiting. "What did that
- "Nothing, he just asked us not to give out his address,
- "Hm, something's fishy. He couldn't say so in the house?
Well, you'll be careful, eh?"
- I don't remember my reply because my imagination was running
wild picturing the inside of a sporting house. Did its female
denizens dress like odalisques in a harem?
- I never wrote to Ben but I never forgot that address. In
1951 I drove four friends to a ski resort in the Laurentians.
On the return trip I took a longer route through Montreal to
the voluble dismay of my passengers who quickly subsided into
thoughtfulness when I explained that we might all be invited
into my uncle's sporting house. Consequently, at 10 a.m. on a
bright January morning, I pulled up in front of a neatly kept
four-story brownstone with heavily brocaded drapes tightly closed
over each window.
- A broad stoop - three stone steps and polished brass handrails
- led up to a wide landing before an ornate wooden door with
a stained glass window. I climbed the steps and pressed the bell
button. It rang inside, and voices sounded from the depths of
a house, but no response. I rang a second and then a third time.
Nothing. Did the habitues of this establishment have a secret
ring? On the fourth try a tall, slim blonde woman, wearing a
long woolen dress of casual but fashionable cut, came out onto
the stoop, first carefully closing an inner vestibule door, and
then locking the outside door behind her. Gripping the bunch
of keys in her right hand and crossing her arms defensively across
her chest, she ignored me and concentrated on the car at the
curb, the ski rack, the mud-splashed fenders and our ski outfits.
Finally, she turned to me, a hard but still pretty face, perhaps
ten or fifteen years too young for Ben, I thought.
- "Oui, M'sieu?"
- "Bonjour, Madame, je suis le neveu de M. Martineau de
Brooklyn. Je m'appelle Benson. Est-il ici?" (Good day, Madam,
I'm Mr. Martineau's nephew from Brooklyn. My name is Benson.
Is he in?)
- "Puis-je demander ou il est?" (May I ask where
- "Il travaille." (Working)
- "S'il vous plait, Madame, dites-lui que je passais pour
- (Would you please tell him, Madame, that I came by to see
- She nodded a curt dismissal and I clumsily backed down the
steps trying to spot any movement behind those drapes. Nothing,
not even one odalisque. The woman remained on the stoop watching
our car drive off and was still watching as we turned the corner.
- At the next family dinner at my folks' house, I described
our bumbling attempt to see Ben.
- "Yeah, sure, you wanted to see Ben! We know what you
guys wanted to see."
- "So, what did that woman say when you asked for him?"
Mother wanted to know.
- "That he was working."
- "Eh! Right then you knew she was lying, no? That bum
never worked a day in his life!"
- A week later Father received a card from Ben. This was not
a good time to come up there, he said. He'd write later and let
us know when to visit him. But we never heard from the man again.