Benny Gets It

   Benny sounded as if he should have been born a duck. He had that flat, quack-like snap that if he were seen in the company of ducks it would not be hard to believe they were his immediate family, or at the least relatives. A nice kid, not too bright, he had a round little face, staring brown eyes, a ski nose, and large ears.

   When his Uncle Rudy, a quixotic man in his fifties, notorious for the troubles with his several wives, first heard Benny's voice it broke him up. He laughed so hard he might have had a heart attack, an event he had already experienced but had gotten away with. Benny's mother, Doris, Rudy's sister, became quite worried.

   "Forget it!" Rudy chirped. "What's better than to die laughing? Besides, I can't die here, it's the living room." Rudy laughed and everybody laughed with him. "That kid ought to be in show business," he added. Uncle Rudy was. Mostly on the summer Borscht Belt, performing in many of the Catskill Mountains hotels. A collector of jokes, skits, and comic songs, Uncle Rudy also had bit parts on radio and did a single act in night clubs, chiefly in Iowa. He was always welcome at his sister's house in Brooklyn, buried in the community of Flatbush where outsiders often became stranded and had to be led out by the police. Two neighborhood couples had been invited to drop in to enjoy Rudy's visit. Rudy told gags all night and had everybody in stitches, although it was his infectious laugh that was irresistible. Five-year-old Benny was the only one who didn't understand a single joke, though he basked in his uncle's popularity. Rudy's pointy nose was on a face as long and narrow as a pickle and comically sour. He had only to twist his lips up the side of his face to make everyone howl. He himself found everything funny, a trait that caught his audience in its undertow. Benny clung to him.

"Wanna do an act with me, Benny?" Rudy suggested, hugging him.
"What's an act?" Benny asked.
"How about we do the tailor sketch?"
"What's the tailor sketch?" Benny said.
"Tell you what. You and me, we'll rehearse it down in the basement and come up and do it for everybody..."
"Okay," Benny agreed, suspiciously.
When they returned half an hour later, Benny followed his uncle carrying a jacket on a hanger.
"What's that for?" his mother asked.
"I dunno," Benny shrugged.
"Of course you know!" Rudy reminded him. "It's for the sketch!"
"What's a sketch?" Benny asked.
"Everybody siddown!" Rudy ordered, pulling the coffee table to the side. "Siddown." Those who were still standing found seats. Nat, Benny's father, his sideburns running down into a bit of beard, switched on the overhead chandelier.
"Great," Rudy said. "Okay. Benny and me are going to do a number. But first we need somebody to be an offstage voice - a doctor's voice. How about you, Nat? You're a doctor already."
"I'm only a dentist," Nat admitted.
"Ta da! You're a doctor!" Rudy said, with a magic gesture. "Now, here's your line. When you hear me say, 'If it's a boy, the father will die', you holler, 'Congratulations Mr. Jones, it's a boy!' Got it?"
"Got it," Benny's father snapped.
"Okay. You go out, Benny. You know when to knock."
Benny looked worried. "When?"
"Like you did in rehearsal!" Rudy said, with a note of exasperation. He bent over and whispered the cue for the knock into Benny's ear. Benny left the room. "Okay, ready," Rudy said. "Curtain." The four members of the audience leaned forward, watching.

   Rudy, his wiry figure suddenly alive in the center of the floor, paced back and forth, a harried expression on his pixie face, groaning and moaning. "Oh, my God, what a terrible thing! Why does this have to happen to me? Oh, my God, what am I going to do?" He threw an anxious look toward the living room entrance and cried in a whisper, "Knock, Benny, knock!" After a moment the knock came followed by a grinning Benny carrying the jacket on the hanger and eyeing the audience, which began to giggle. Flushed with success Benny turned to his uncle.

"I'm the tailor's boy," he said.
"Not yet, not yet," his uncle said.
Benny waited as Rudy resumed his pacing.
"Who are you?" he finally demanded.
"I'm the tailor's boy. I always deliver clothes here."
"Put it down, put it down!" Rudy said, pacing again. Benny dropped the jacket on a chair.
"Is anything the matter, Mr. Jones?" Benny asked.
"The matter! Is anything the matter? My wife is in the bedroom having a baby!"
"That's wonderful," Benny answered promptly. The audience laughed unrestrainedly.
"You would think so!" Rudy replied, a nervous wreck. "But I go to a fortune teller who is right ninety-nine percent of the time. And she told me if the baby is a girl, the mother will die, and if it's a boy, the father will die!"
"Congratulations, Mr. Jones!" cried the doctor's voice. "It's a boy!"

   Responding to his cue, Benny fell down on the floor. There was a split-second pause as the audience grasped the joke, then burst into howls of laughter, not only at the joke but at the way Benny had collapsed like a stone. Uncle Rudy, after a beat, stepped back, bowed, gazed at Benny still outstretched on the floor, and broke into laughter louder than the entire audience. Praising Benny for his performance, they went on laughing until they were breathless as Benny rose, baffled, observing them.

"What's the matter, Benny?" his Uncle Rudy asked, drying his eyes.
"What are they laughin' at?" Benny asked.
On hearing the question, everybody laughed again, Rudy the loudest, shaking and holding his sides. "You wanna know what they're laughin' at?" Rudy repeated looking around at the others who couldn't stop until Doris dragged Benny into the kitchen to help her bring in the coffee and cake. The remainder of the evening's conversation was broken into by Rudy quipping every few minutes, "He wants to know what you were laughin' at!" Which set everyone off again until Benny was sent to bed and the party broke up.

   It was over a year and a half later when Rudy, living on the West Coast for all that time, let them know he would be returning. They kept it from Benny as a surprise but at a critical moment, Benny had to be informed.

   "Hurry up!" they yelled at him when he returned from school one afternoon to find his father home from work so early and his mother on the verge of tears. Rushing to the hospital, they told him Uncle Rudy had arrived by plane but had to be carried off in a stretcher. At the hospital they had to wait over an hour for him to be brought from intensive care to a private room. Benny was left sitting on a bench while his parents went in to see him. When they emerged, anxious to contact the doctor to fill in the details about Rudy's unbearable pains, they sent Benny in while they were thus occupied. Alone, Benny quietly approached the bed.

   Dewy-eyed, Uncle Rudy saw him and a grin spread over his pickle face. "Is that you, Benny?" he asked hoarsely.
"Yeah. It is I." Benny responded.
"How old are ya now?" Rudy asked, breathlessly.
"Six and a half," Benny said.
"Stay single," Rudy advised.
"Huh?" Benny said.
"Nothin'."
"Uncle Rudy..."
"Yeah?"
"Uncle Rudy. Why did they laugh?"
"You...you wanna know... why...why they laughed...?" Rudy gulped for air, laughing.
"Yeah. Tell me."
Rudy's chest heaved as he went out of control. His body leaped up and down in the bed, his laughter rocked the room, and he shook as Benny stood waiting for the answer. A moment later a nurse raced in, swept Benny aside and threw herself on Uncle Rudy to restrain his convulsions, clutching him in her arms as he expired.
"Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" she moaned. "He's dead."
"I get it!" Benny cried. "He's the father!"






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Copyright August 3, 2000-

 

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