The boy, the tightrope star
Hilarie Shanley

Ben gave me flowers two nights before he catapulted into the carrot patch. They were Queen Anne's Lace, with beetle bugs stuck to the webbing like miniature jewels.
That same night, he asked me what I saw for our future.
Ice cream in a bowl, no less than three scoops, I'd told him. Also, a lot of cosmic significance. Secret creatures on Jupiter clapping as we kiss. But I have to go away for a while, I said, biting the edge of his sleeve.
I was moving away to the green mountains. Here, the sea curled around us, leaving salt crystal spawn in our hair. I am allergic to water. It leaves my skin blistered. I tell people not to feel bad for me. I say: Somewhere, there is a gang of octopi. These octopi want nothing more than to own a corn and tomato farm out west. But they are allergic to the dirt. They would suffocate atop their tractors. I'm getting out of this place that can't hold me. I'm going to the dirt. I'm leaving the water for the banana slugs to own.
A few days later, I'm camped out in Ben's yard. I'm sleeping as he plays tight rope on his porch railing. He pivots and then falls into the communal gardening space below. It is catastrophic. It is seen from a satellite spying on earth. It's felt in the trenches where spiders live.
His death makes him a hero in Madagascar. When the scientists came to extract the pieces of Ben's body, they had to sift through the carrot patch. They dug and found gold globules and a collection of scrolls penned by the mistress of a Malagasy king. The land of Madagascar was prone to awful things, like cholera and cyclones, and they took Ben's name and sewed it into their language.
For the next seven thousand years, through heat waves and radio transmissions and atomic energy and the birth of a hundred fiddle players, up until our planet got mashed into Mars, the word "Ben" in Malagasy was used to signify love.
I like to think that's a fantastic tribute. Christ himself didn't do much better. America Ben was forgotten as soon as the scientists gathered him and sprayed us with solvent and ate our carrots and ditched town. Madagascar Ben was a hero, snapping his own bones for the honor of somebody else.
Let me tell you about Ben.
In school, they would give lectures about him. He could electrocute you if you rubbed his hair for too long. The scientists called him a national treasure. The rebel kids would pretend not to listen. They would sit and wedge pennies in between the keys of the auditorium piano.
The scientists told us not to be afraid of Ben and his rows of baby shark teeth. They told us not to get nervous when he made the whirring noise in geometry class. Shapes and angles were really his thing. We ditched science class because he called it a sham. We hid out in the birch trees. Ben would sizzle ants and their tiny bodies would tar onto the branches.
Ben was painful to hug due to the electrons that swarmed around him like invisible mites. He has a heart, bloody and real, and that's what counts, I told myself.
Sally, he said. Do you like blackberries? He had found the vines on the sly. He wouldn't tell me the quadrants, just that it intersected with a makeout trail behind school. He wouldn't take me there, and I was too afraid to go. I really wanted to swordfight him with my tongue, in a style better than anything else.
I want to buy you a book, he told me. He was thinking about 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He knew it was written about my dad. My dad built a submarine and took a guitar and a potted plant with him. He told me that he would write me letters and deliver them with whales. He told me a lot of things.
I pictured his daily chores and the exercises he did before bed. One would have to exercise a lot in a submarine. I wondered if he missed the sun or owning freckles. I wondered if he pined for a jelly sandwich. At night I dreamed about his lungs collapsing from pressure. I dreamed about portholes with hairline cracks and a large milky eye staring down its prey.
Ben couldn't afford the book. He made a plan to lift it from the library. No, just memorize it, I told him. At night we sat up and he talked through a chapter.
He would talk about natural disasters or ghosts closing in on my neck. He would grab my wrist and its two piano chord bones. He clutched me and made me unafraid of the gory stuff inside me. I didn't mind the sinew and I counted my veins like they were matchsticks.
His mom never cooked him turkey oysters. She didn't understand the art of gingerbread construction. She liked to torture ice cubes. She would melt them down to pebbles in her martinis. The olive was Jupiter and the pebbles were its moons.
Ben tried to make her fall in love with pink plastic flamingoes and raise a colony of them in the yard. He even wanted her lipstick smudges, but just on the holidays. He ached to complain about her trail mix and how the spices were all wrong. He never got a chance. She would yell anytime his whirring woke her up. We had to be opera house quiet any time we kissed. Sometimes his teeth gave me a shock but I took on the currents without a word.
Once he told me about a volcano near Fiji getting ready to churn up the sea. It would be a mess of earth guts and creatures would boil in the water. I cried and he told me that the heartiest ones would live to tell the tale. During this prophecy, we ate popsicles. I slurped the life out of the ice before I allowed it to disappear. His was gone in three quick snaps.
His whirring kept me awake even when I was away from him. I think some molecules hitched a ride in my sneakers and then got stuck in the toothpaste. He wanted to make me forget about the mountains. One day, we stood near the edge of the ocean. I was trying to mind the water. He shocked a purple-stained anemone and looked triumphant.
He wanted to tell me things he saw in my future. He tried to talk about cricket championships and the way light bulbs would someday explode at my feet. His prophecies itched my ribs and punished me for skipping forward. I would plug my ears and yell about june bugs and peanut butter. I would yell about my dad's cracked submarine, anything to distract him from spilling my future best parts.
Please move to the mountains with me, I said. I will build you a porch swing. I will let you be assistant manager of the tee ball concession stand. No, he said, jumping into the surf.
I think you are afraid to leave your mother, I told him. I'll be better than her. I'll make spaghetti even when you don't ask. He got mad at me. This was his mother. What beats blood? Only bone. They shared those, too.
Kissing doesn't beat it and rain puddle stomps can't, either. We were stalemates next to the low tide and his mother watched us while she slurped gin.
He tried to rid himself of me. He said I was worse than measles. In class, he spoke very loudly about predators that exist in mountain ranges. He camped out on the beach and took up surfing. He started dating girls who ate lollipops while they sunned. He started to whirr constantly. He kissed girls in front of me. I could feel the current.
Everybody knew that Ben was planning something awful. The scientists made us waddle around in rubber suits. If he strikes, it will be worse than one thousand simultaneous lightening bolts, they said. I'm not afraid! The smallest kids would chant, sticking their necks into the fat air.
I found him sitting on his lawn with a tiny mole. His name is Merle, he told me. The rodent ran loops around the corn stalks. He laughed and poor Merle took one beady-eyed glimpse at Ben's molars and beat it into the grain.
It was our last night together before the mountains. I tried to tug his ear and Eskimo kiss his kneecap. Snow pea, I called him, trying to win him over. Couscous. He wouldn't look up. Onion? Food names were sweet to me. I thought he would approve.
Leave me alone, he said. I hope you meet a really great cowboy and have tons of ice cream. Not a cowboy! I yelled. I will meet a farmer. We'll own a lousy Italian restaurant on our back porch.
On my walk home, kids stopped me at a checkpoint and emptied my pockets. You're the freak's girlfriend, they said. The freak doesn't have a girlfriend! I yelled, trying to mash their toes.
I kept walking. I realized that I loved the freak's sea of molars and his whirring that lulled me to sleep. I liked how he stung anemone and I liked his plan to cure me on water. His body was oddly buoyant and I liked that, too. He is very conducive for being marooned someplace palmy, I thought. It would spoil the danger but it's nice to know that he'd never let me sink.
I made my smallest bones scrape together some courage. I knocked and asked to see him. His mother turned me away at the door.
I camped out near the garden. I spent some time looking for Merle, but he was long gone. I sighed and figured that he had joined up with the vermin navy and hit the seven seas. I thought of Merle as I fell asleep in the dirt. The stars looked like a bunch of sad-eyed friends.
When Ben's body fell, I thought it was a meteor. I was scared and I tried to pretend the meteor was filled with space jewels and some alien kid's history homework. Around me fell pieces of my boyfriend. There were wires and bone and some guts near the edge of the field. There were carrot splinters everywhere. The old widows started to screech from above. This woke the scientists, who arrived and carted me away, struggling, soaked to the eardrums with his softest parts.
The last I heard, his mom met a scientist whose research was so filthy that he was sent away. Together they set sail for the Bermuda triangle, daring it to try and corral them in.
Sometimes I can sense him. Other times, I'm convinced that he guards the carrot patch or haunts his mother by throwing ice cubes at her head. Sometimes I think he's living in a tree in the highlands of Madagascar, ghost kissing the necks of girls because really, why not?
In the mountains, they sit you down and ask for your story. I know some really nice octopi, you tell them. You like the dirt. You nibble tomatoes like they are fresh hearts.