Three days stretched into six days.
It was an indie movie.
Ceaseless streams of visitors, all of them with stories to tell. Do you remember that time Ben smuggled an alligator on the plane from Florida and brought it back to New York? Do you remember that time Ben lost his wallet hitchhiking in Big Sur on Christmas Day and found it again in the same truck in San Francisco exactly one year later?
Robin and Lew sobbing by the bedside.
Me reading aloud from a Dave Robicheaux novel but a different
Dave Robicheaux novel than the one I read aloud from last time Ben fell into a hepatic encephalitic coma.
But he didn’t die.
And so far as I know, he’s not dead yet.
“I mean, is it even remotely
possible that he won’t
die?” I asked Adam.
Adam raised his eyebrows and did a palms up. “I’m not Yoda. How would I know?”
“If he does
recover, I swear to God, I’ll think seriously about taking Jesus Christ as my own personal savior.”
“You’d be better off taking Thor as your own personal savior,” said Adam.
Adam kept me sane.
If I were 20 years younger, I’d think about falling in love with Adam.
I’d gone up with the intention of dissuading Robin from trying to do hospice care for his father in that hideous, dark apartment. It had jolted me so badly to see Ben on the sickbed there at the beginning of July. The spare room was just so awful
. No light, no attempt to make the room pretty
. God knows, I had tried and tried for months
to get him to let me clean up that apartment. But he wouldn’t.
Maybe things were just waiting for me to get there to turn bad.
Or maybe he just stopped wanting to live after Sarolta dumped him.
Or maybe it was after the hospital lost his dentures. That robbed him of his last bit of dignity. Now he was just another gomer in a warehouse masquerading as a house of healing that was filled with gomers.
In any event, he was expected to last another few weeks when I arrived on Sunday but by the time Monday afternoon rolled around, the docs had revised their estimate: His sojourn between the two worlds would be brief. He was walking briskly toward the exit of the circus tent.
We had a Moment.
I was reading to him: Her face is lost in thought, either about him or herself, he’s not sure. To her, Jude LeBlanc is a mystery, one she never quite understands, but it’s obvious she accepts and loves him for whatever he is or isn’t, and imposes no judgment on him—
Ben’s eyes opened.
I closed the book. “Hey,” I said. “Hey. Do you know who I am?”
He nodded. “Patty.”
“Ben, Ben, Ben, Ben
. How did you let yourself get so sick?”
He tried to grin. “I don’t know. I love you.”
“I love you. Are you off adventuring across the wide universe?”
“Not exactly. Close. Robin.”
“He’ll be okay.”
“I trust you,” he said. “I know you will.”
He closed his eyes and he was out again.Will what?
I wanted to ask.
I liked Adam’s Ben story the best. Adam is a tattoo artist. He did Ben’s tattoo of the Lascaux dawn horses, which is the best tattoo I’ve ever seen though I should out myself here: I don’t like tattoos. Maybe they look okay on flesh that’s firm, resilient, young
(although that’s debatable, and I personally argue on the con
side.) They look like shit
on flesh that’s sagging, hypotonic, and old
. And you spend as much time being old
as you do being young
Adam used Ben as an instructive cautionary tale. “Any time anyone wants a sweetie pie tattoo, I tell them the story of Ben and Callie.”
The Peace Corps had sent Ben to a small village outside Tela on Honduras’s Caribbean coast. He was supposed to help reestablish the local sea turtle population there. On a trip to the American consulate in Tegucigalpa, he met Callie; she was the wife of the American consulate.
Or at least, that was the story he told me
“Do you think that was true
?” I asked Adam.
“Well, I know he was in the Peace Corps. And they sent him to Honduras.”
“I mean, that she was the wife of the American consulate?”
Adam laughed. “Does it matter? It makes a great story. Which means in some larger
sense, it’s true.”
Callie fell madly in love with Ben. Ben fell madly in love with her back. That was the thing about Ben: Women were always falling madly in love with him. And whether because those women were all inherently loveable or because Ben himself was exceptionally obliging, he always fell madly in love with them back.
Multiple adventures ensued of the type that always befall callow youths in love with the wives of powerful men. He recited them to me more than once, but I can’t say I remember any of them.
Eventually, Callie left the husband, and Ben left the Peace Corps. They decamped to the San Francisco Bay Area, specifically to West Oakland, which in those days, was a kind of Tijuana, a border outpost hammered together out of spare parts and industrial waste. Ben got a motorcycle and worked in a chopshop—or at least, that’s what he told me
. Adam remembers the bike but not the chopshop.
Callie, who came from money, was not at all comfortable in this environment. The couple began having problems. Ben was not getting laid.
Adam and Ben had first met while they were working together at the Bronx Zoo. From there, Adam had gone on to become an EMT, and he made decent money, too. But that job entailed hauling gunshot victims, ODs and other soon-to-be corpses too numerous to count from Castle Hill and Soundview, the two most notorious warzones in the South Bronx. Adam worked all night and drank all day. At some point, he realized this was not
a healthy lifestyle. He’d once studied illustration at the Parsons School of Design. So he decided to do
something with his degree. He became a tattoo artist!
And Ben decided to do
something he was sure would win back Callie’s affection and cement his place in her heart for all time: He’d tattoo her name on his right arm!
“Are you sure, man?” Adam asked. “I mean, the technology has improved what with lasers and all. Still, it’s not easy to get rid of a sweetie pie tatt once passion ebbs.”
Ben was sure.
Adam, however, remained un
sure. “Tell you what, man,” he said. “Let’s do a trial run.”
So they did. They put a temporary tattoo on Ben’s arm, and they rigged it with Vaseline and ketchup-soaked bandages to make it look like a fresh tatt.
Ben went home to show it to Callie.
And arrived back at Adam’s shop the next morning before it even opened.
it,” he crowed to Adam. “She melted
, just melted! She—“
“All right, all right,” said Adam. “I don’t need the details. One sweetie pie tattoo coming right up.”
“Make it as permanent
as you can!” Ben told him.
Of course, when he got back to their hovel that afternoon, Callie was gone. But there was a letter: Dear Ben…
Unbeknownst to Ben, Callie had been having an affair with her boss for the last couple of months. The job had something to do with raising vast sums of money for worthy nonprofits. The boss, who was from the same socioeconomic background as Callie, was absolutely appalled that Callie was living the way she was living, had determined to snatch her away from it. Caught between mercurial, changeling-child Ben and the irresistible embodiment of capitalism at its most macho, Callie went with the most identifiable brand of testosterone.
Ben was back at Adam’s shop the very next morning. “Get rid of it!
“No, you motherfucker, no,” Adam said. “I tried to warn you! And I used a very concentrated form of red ink that’s almost impossible to cover up. You’re gonna have to learn to live with it.”
So Ben did.
His next girlfriend Sharee, a hustler from Australia, hated the damn thing and kept trying to steal equipment from Adam so she could perform a DIY erasure.
“Keep your fucking hands off my tools,” Adam told her. “And even if I did
let you borrow the machine—which I won’t—it won’t work.”
I was the girlfriend who followed Sharee. I didn’t mind the Callie tatt—which is to say, I did
mind it, but I minded it the same way I minded all of Ben’s tatts: They were all equally regrettable to my mind.
Forever afterwards, Adam told this story to each and every prospective client who came to him with the wild idea of turning a girlfriend or boyfriend’s name into an indelible barcode on his or her flesh.
“I like to think that over the years, Ben’s misfortune has saved a lot of people from getting sweetie pie tatts that they’d later regret,” Adam told me. “In that way, Ben has contributed to the betterment of all mankind.”
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