Benny says he goes into his study to read, but I hear him talking to himself, his voice often loud enough that I can hear it on the other side of the house. I sometimes creep close and try to overhear him, though I'm reluctant to intrude into his thoughts and join the conversation, if that's the right word for it. He does at times seem to be answering someone inside his head, a person or persons more privy to his thoughts than I am.
More than once I've heard Benny talking about the price of a particular beer at a restaurant where we eat regularly, not a high-dollar place but one offering a discount coupon. It's a local craft beer that he says is his favorite and this restaurant charges $8 a bottle. On a recent visit there, Benny started to order it anyway, saying he'd never seen it on their list before, then paused and stopped himself as he gradually wound himself up, commenting that he could buy a six-pack for $10.99 at the grocery store. So he drank some of the wine we ordered for the table and we moved on to other topics. Yet the beer's price stayed with him, and as we ate he seemed quiet and unsettled.
Benny had never been at ease around the couple we were with, Angela and Jeff. I played mah-jongg with Angela and we had a rapport from the game. As Benny saw it, Angela agreed with almost everything anyone said but then came out with sudden dogmatic statements, and Jeff never changed facial expressions and barely moved his lips when he talked, but he seemed to have strong emotions lurking beneath the surface. We'd decided we couldn't discuss politics with them without risking damaging aftereffects, which made Benny feel bottled up.
In general, we find politics to be a loaded subject. Benny's internist of fifteen years dumped him several months ago when he went on Medicare. After calling numerous primary-care doctors, Benny finally turned one up who'd accept his coverage.
"What's wrong with you?" the new doctor asked first thing as he looked him over. According to Benny, he was a chuckling young man with a brusque, all-knowing manner.
"Nothing," Benny said.
"Then why are you here?"
"For a Wellness Visit."
The doctor approached and looked into his eyes.
"Democrat or Republican?" he asked.
"Is that a healthcare issue these days?"
"Are you a D?" the doctor asked, laughing.
Benny left his office.
Driving home from the restaurant, Benny complained about certain statements made by Angela and Jeff that in his opinion pointed to their political bias, references to a Muslim infiltration of Europe and to the perils of socialized medicine. I tried to deflect by asking what he'd thought of the wine, and he said he'd have liked the beer better. I didn't tell him he should have ordered the beer if he'd wanted it, worried he'd get fixed on the subject the rest of the night.
It turned out the subject took over more than that night, continuing to fester in his mind like some insidious yeast infection. We went to a different restaurant a week later that sold the same beer for $6 a bottle, which irritated his wound, and whenever he went to a grocery store he noted the price of a six-pack and reported his findings to me when he returned home. He made a trip to a Walmart where he'd never been to check their price and explained it by saying he'd gone there to fill a prescription.
Unfortunately, we like the food at the offending restaurant. Their mushroom soup is a personal favorite, and even though I clipped one of their coupons I've chosen not to utter the restaurant's name. Just thinking of it, I imagine his mind flaring up.
But my precautions had little or no effect on Benny. Outside his study door I heard: "$10.99 for six, $8 for one, not even imported. I'm going over there. I need to take a stand."
What kind of stand? I wondered.
I'm worried about him. He hasn't been the same since the election. When we watch the news, Benny presses mute and looks away whenever the most powerful man in the world appears. Or he changes the channel, often finding him there as well. "He makes me feel as bad as he is," Benny says. Understandably, he feels weak listening to him.
"We could stop watching the news," I suggested.
"We need to keep an eye on him," Benny replied.
I couldn't disagree, but I ask myself what it will take for Benny to be himself again. He bought a case of his favorite beer on a second trip to Walmart, though at the grocery store he used to buy a six-pack. He's drinking two of them every evening when he used to drink only one. The way he grips the neck of the bottle and slurps it down as we listen to political talk on TV concerns me. I can't tell if it's making him feel better or worse.
Yesterday, Benny announced we should return to the restaurant with the overpriced beer. He'd looked at the coupon in the drawer and saw it would expire soon. I didn't mention the beer, but I asked if he'd be agitated the whole time and if we'd be able to enjoy our dinner. He said he planned to enjoy it.
We chose a table on the patio, a slight breeze tempering the heat. I ordered a glass of red wine and Benny ordered the $8 beer. The moment our drinks were served, he asked to speak to the manager. I tried to judge his emotional state while we waited, but he didn't look at me.
"Yes sir, I'm the manager. May I help you?"
We'd spoken to her once before, months ago when I told her I loved their mushroom soup. Benny held up his beer bottle.
"I owe you an apology," he told her. "I have been troubled by your price for this beer. Other local restaurants I have visited or called charge less for it, but I have let this bother me to such an extent that my wife hasn't brought up your restaurant for fear of provoking an outburst. We have come here many times and have always had good meals, and I should not let the price of a single item prevent future enjoyment or affect my overall opinion of your efforts. Yet I must ask you, how did you arrive at a price of $8 for this beer? If I knew the answer I may at last be able to put this issue to rest."
"I will pass your feedback along," she said, "but that decision is made at a higher level. I'm happy to hear you like the beer, and I agree with you on the price."
Benny seemed to accept what she said, and he sipped from the beer before and during dinner and sighed with pleasure after several swallows. But the server took a long time bringing his dessert and he began to grumble, asking if they were making it from scratch and shifting in his chair and looking over his shoulder. He slammed his fist on the table, puffing. When the server showed up with his cake he told her he could have driven home and eaten a dessert in less time than it took to get this one. She said she was sorry for the delay. He handed her our coupon and asked for the check.
We didn't speak on the way home until Benny cracked the silence.
"Democrat or Republican," he said. "Can you believe it? What gets into people?"