It's not that I've never had any recreational Valium on hand. It's just that Ben Corcoran was the last guy I'd ever expect to want some. For Benny the Boy Scout to come straight out and ask if I had any extra controlled substance I could spare, well, I'd have had to call that the most bizarre event of the decade. Rather, I would have, if not for the fact that he then said that “any kind of major league depressant would do” when I said I was fresh out. That just pushed the whole conversation into a whole new realm of weird. I was still trying to parse that when I finally saw the blood on his shoes.
Something I've always thought was kind of funny about myself – I never panic, even when there would seem to be good reason to do so. This is almost exclusively when I need to make ends meet with a little dealing. I don’t lead a really complex life, at least not along those lines, but I see a little freaky stuff every now and then. It never occurs to me to lose it, that's all. That was more than I could say about Marisa, my girlfriend (or friend, or whatever the hell she is). Unlike me, she tends to go nutso when the weird hits the fan. Three things that always set her off are blood, guns and large amounts of cash. In my experience, these three things are a matched set and occur together as often as not. It made me wonder what was in the bag Ben had brought in with him.
Marisa was still sort of calm, so she couldn’t possibly have seen the blood before she'd gotten up. She was behind Ben, in the kitchen, pouring out another glass of vodka for him. In my studio apartment, the kitchen is only separated from the living room by four feet and a social convention. She'd paused on hearing him ask about the drugs, and was trying to catch my eye over his shoulder. It wouldn’t have done her any good. I was completely in the dark, even as to why Ben was here instead of bleeding on his own rug back in Philadelphia. I avoided her wiggling eyebrows and looked at Ben instead.
He was watching my face. Not exactly looking me in the eye, but checking me out. He'd followed my gaze, so he knew that I'd seen the blood. I figure he was waiting for me to start jumping up and down. I waited right back at him. I may have been in the dark, but he was the one who was bleeding; I'd wait for him to explain what the hell was up. He acknowledged the set of my jaw with a wink and said, “I knew I could count on you, Charlie.” He turned so he could face Marisa as she came around the sofa. He took back his glass from her hand, and interrupted the question she was curling up her lip for. “Thanks very much. Marisa, I'm awfully sorry to have dropped in like this. I know you and Charlie were looking forward to having a nice evening together. I realize it must be kind of irritating for you, having one of Charlie's old buddies blow into town so unexpectedly, and acting so strangely to boot. I want you to know that I certainly do appreciate your understanding.”
He was looking her full in the face as he made this little speech. This was vintage Ben, the same kind of gee-gosh-golly crap I'd heard him use every time he wanted to schmooze somebody. The thing that had always killed me was that it worked. It never sounded like anything but 24 karat bullshit to me, but people had been falling for this stuff since he first started doing it in the tenth grade. Teachers, bosses, pretty girls, angry boyfriends, anybody. People just tended to cut him an unbelievable amount of slack and go along with him. Even when they must surely have known he was full of it, they let it ride. It was something about the way he said it, I guess. When I'd tried the exact same lines, I'd usually ended up getting my ass kicked. He held up the glass of vodka. “This is doing wonders for my karma, Marisa. Cheers.” He drank off half of it in three big swallows, then smiled in a big show of pleasure like it was a premium label brand instead of nine dollar crap. Hell, I never smiled when I drank that stuff, and it was my vodka. I was marveling at how smooth he could be even as he sat there, injured as he was. I'd never known Ben to panic, either. Looking at his shoes again, I though that if I had some kind of a slow bleeding wound, I'd want some damned vodka and Valium, too.
Marisa was standing in front of Ben with her arms crossed, frowning at him. I knew the stance. She wasn't making any attempt to hide the fact that she was pissed off. Still, she wasn't bitching either, so that was a net positive. She'd been working herself up to get into full lecture mode just when Ben had buzzed my apartment. I'd been grateful for the interruption, but was as surprised as hell to see Ben. I hadn't spoken to him in a few months, hadn't even known he was in New York. Marisa had had to zip it shut while we did a little backslapping inside the apartment door. She acted almost civil during the introductions and initial chit chat, but she got mad when he asked her to get him a drink. When he knocked it back and asked her to make him another one, “a little stronger this time”, she got royally ticked. If she'd thought that bringing him a half glass of vodka would send some kind of a message, I could have told her not to bother.
Ben reached into his pocket a pulled out a big roll of bills. Marisa's face twisted up into an ugly expression. Oh brother, I thought, here we go. Ben said, “You know what, Marisa? Charlie and I haven't seen each other for a while, and we've got a little catching up to do. Could I ask you to do me a favor? I sure do like Charlie's stuff here, but how's about we make it a special occasion?” He peeled off six, eight, a dozen twenties and held the folded bills out to her. “How's about you run along to that liquor store I passed over on 148th street and pick us up a couple of bottles of something good. Get us some of that expensive vodka, the stuff on the top shelf. Be sure to get a couple of bottles of whatever you'd like, too. Thanks, honey, you're the best.”
This was so far off the charts for Marisa that her mouth actually hung open. To tell the truth, I was pretty amazed, too. The flip side of Ben's smooth talk was pure acid. I'd seen Ben work people over with a hundred well chosen words, cut them right to the bone. He could make a grown man blush and retreat just by knowing exactly what to say to hurt them. However, that had only ever been on the rare occasions that he'd been unable to snow them. He always wanted to win, but he always preferred the honey to the vinegar. Yet here he was, winding up Marisa like she'd been pissing him off all night. Talking down to her, ordering her off on a drunk's errand, patting her on the head and offering a couple of bottles of booze as a reward ... he had barely met her and he was pushing all of her hate buttons at once. The fear buttons, too, although it wasn't clear to me at the time that he'd known that flashing a big roll of bills would send her into flight mode.
When Marisa looked down at the fold of twenties he was holding out, I could tell that she saw the blood, too. Frankly, having seen Marisa's reaction to blood and money, I could have bet that whole roll of bills that she'd start in with the crying and the useless questions. She surprised me, though. She just clenched both fists and crossed her arms. She must have been really angry. I mean like kick somebody in the balls angry. She stared at Ben's bloody shoes for a moment, then scowled over at me. Her urge to make sense of everything (and therefore control it) was warring with her desire to run away from the bad man. Abruptly, she stuck her hand out at Ben and took the money he was still holding out. She shoved it into the back pocket of her jeans, pulled her coat and scarf off of the row of hooks by the front door and stomped out the door.
I blew out my breath in a whistle. “Jesus, Ben...” I started to say, but he held out a hand to silence me. He tilted his head to one side as Marisa's footsteps on the stairs faded away. I started to speak again, but he twitched his hand again, waiting. The silence stretched out for a long time before we heard the front door of the apartment building slam. Ben lowered his hand and his faced melted into a picture of pain and fatigue.
“I'm sorry I had to be rude to your girlfriend, Charlie. I needed to talk to you alone.”
“Well, that's one way to do it.” I replied.
“How long will she be gone?”
“You mean, 'will she come back'? Not a chance. You really pissed her off, ordering her around. You also scared the hell out of her, and she'll eventually get pissed about that too. She'll call me tomorrow to tell me she's not speaking to me. I probably won't see her for a month.”
“I hope I haven't done any permanent damage to your relationship.”
“Oh, stuff it, Ben.” I replied. “You're gonna piss me off next. What's going on? Are you hurt? How bad is it? I haven't seen you in two years, you didn't return my last three phone calls and you haven't answered your e.mail since Christmas. What the hell, Ben?”
He looked almost normal again as he gave a soft laugh. “OK, OK, I'm an asshole all around.” His smile faded. “The fact is, Charlie...” He fell silent. He looked into his glass, lifted it and drained it. He sat silently.
“Yo, Ben,” I said, “you? At a loss for words? Not possible.”
He looked up. “I'm not sure where to begin.”
“Let's start with the blood on your shoes. You can tell me about that.”
Ben nodded. “Stab wound, deflected off a rib on my right side. He was trying a backswing like in the movies. I broke his arm for him after he completed the swing, then shoved his head into a brick wall. Most of the blood is from his forehead. My clothes were a mess, but I didn't have another pair of shoes. His didn't fit.”
“Ben, this is just unbelievable. Where did you get sewn up, St. Anthony's?”
“I haven't been sewn up yet. That's one of the things I need your help with, Charlie.”
“Christ Almighty, Ben! When did this happen?”
“About an hour ago. I've probably bled through the shirt I taped on as a dressing. I can feel the duct tape starting to slip. That's partly why it would have been nice if you had some kind of substantial pain killer. This really fucking hurts as it is; I'm figuring it's gonna get pretty goddamned memorable once you start in with the needle and thread. You learned first aid in the boy scouts, right? Charlie, please tell me you do have needle and thread, right?”
I ran a hand through my hair, amazed at him. He'd always been a cool character, but this tough guy act was like nothing I'd ever seen from him. “Yeah, Ben, I do. I use it to sew on my buttons. Look, what the hell is going on? You're a software engineer, for Christ's sake, you haven't been in a fight since that Alpha Sigma Delta thing in freshman year back at Notre Dame. How the hell did you get stabbed? And what happened to the guy you were fighting with? Where is he? Did he follow you here?”
“No, he didn't. I'm willing to bet he's where I left him.” Ben lifted the glass towards his lips again, saw that it was empty and lowered it. “Charlie, seriously, we need to talk. Hand me that bottle and go get the sewing stuff. I'll walk you through the stitching and tell you the whole story. You of all people have a right to know.”
“Ben, goddamn it, you should go to the emergency room. I sewed up your eyebrow that one time, but aside from watching a bunch of M*A*S*H reruns, that is the sum total of my experience with stitches. There's all kinds of muscles and nerves and stuff in your chest. I could really fuck this up.” His words finally sank in. “Hold it, what do you mean, 'me of all people'? I've got a right to know just because you're my friend and you're bleeding on my floor.” He looked down into his empty glass, but didn't respond. “Why won't you go to the hospital?” He still said nothing. Stubborn bastard. I sighed and handed him the bottle. “Go easy,” I said, “I've got some ibuprofen, but I don't know how well it mixes with alcohol.”
He poured himself another half glass. “Like bacon and eggs, I'm sure.” he said. He was contemplating his vodka as I turned to go into my bedroom to get the sewing stuff.
The way I'm describing how all this took place, I know it makes me sound like a pussy. I'm not normally the type to just sit back and let stuff happen, or to let other people make decisions for me. The fact is, I was pretty shook up. Ben was obviously in some deep shit and needed help. Aside from going on red alert and putting shields up at maximum power, there wasn't much I could do without more info. Until he told me what exactly what we were dealing with, I had to follow his lead.
It may seem odd to you that I didn't hesitate about this. Maybe if one of my other friends had shown up all fucked up and needy like that, I might have given them a drink, called them a cab and kicked them out. Remember, though, that at the time I had no idea what he'd done, or what he'd discovered about us. More importantly, though, you gotta remember that this was Ben Corcoran, my pal from high school back Indianapolis. Well, OK, so maybe that doesn't exactly say who he was, but most of the people in my life would have a hard time picturing me in Indianapolis, let alone as a high school kid. I'd been in New York for more than ten years at that point. That's long enough so that I could pass for a native New Yorker, at least to anybody who isn't a native New Yorker. The point is, I never talk about growing up in the Midwest. There were only five people from that part of my life that I still keep in touch with. Ben was the only one who wasn't a blood relative.
I now know it was naïve to say that we were like brothers. Even as I shook out some ibuprofen and snipped off a few lengths of thread, it never occurred to me to turn my back on him. I focused on the immediate details and wondered how bad it all was.
To be honest about it, I suppose there was a small, pathetic part of me that was glad to be the one who was giving the help, instead of the one needing it. On two occasions, he’d given me a couch to sleep on for a couple of months. He always popped for a cold twelve pack and a couple of pizzas whenever he was in town with work for his engineering firm. He was the ant, I was the grasshopper. I didn't try to get him to lighten up, he didn't try to get me to settle down. We were alike enough to be close, different enough to always have something new to talk about. It was the best of friendships.
I handed him the pills. He washed down four of them with the rest of his vodka. I poured him some more, and poured out two other glasses. I drank one, set the other on the counter. I wish I could say that I was doing some strategic thinking while I threaded three needles and dunked them all into the third glass of vodka. The fact is, I was only glad that my roommates had gigs that night. They were both pretty paranoid, even for musicians. They probably wouldn't have been too happy about all of this. Aside from that, I was just trying to think about what we would have to do to get Ben out of whatever jam he was in. I didn't think about what it might me for me in the larger sense. Long-range planning was never my strong suit.
He said, “You know how my Mom and Dad never made a big deal out of the fact that I was adopted? How they were up front about it, but how it didn't matter?” Ben looked at his glass as he spoke.
I stared at him. What the fuck?
“Uh, Ben, maybe you should lie down.” I said.
He looked up at me. “No, I'm alright. I need to tell you what happened, where I came from. You need to know about my parents, my biological parents.” He glanced over at the glass on the counter. “Let's give that another couple of minutes. I'm probably not going to be able to speak coherently while you're sewing.”
“I wish you wouldn't call it that. I think you're going to have to lie down so I can do this. Maybe if your muscles are relaxed they'll take the stitches better. I hope you don't mind white thread; it's all I have,” I said. “It'll match your engineer's tan.”
“Charlie,” he continued, “I know I told you that my parents held me back from starting school because I was really sickly as a little kid. Remember? How the doctor told them it was 'failure to thrive'?”
“I guess so. Yeah, I remember you saying something about how it wasn't until, like, third grade that you really grew out of it.”
He nodded. “At Dad’s funeral, Mom told me that they had been afraid that the adoption agency had lied to them. They 'd been afraid that my biological mother had been a crack addict or something.” He swirled his vodka around a little. “It would be nice to think that if they’d found out after the fact, it wouldn’t have made any difference. But the fact is, if they'd known beforehand, they never would have agreed to take me.”
“Ben, will you just say what you have to say? What does any of this have to do with what happened tonight? Did you find out who your biological mother was or something?”
“No,” he said. His eyes were closed, tightly. “I found out that I didn't have a biological mother.” He opened his eyes, and put his free hand on his knee. “Come on, I can't wait any longer for these Advil to take effect.” He pushed himself up to stand, convulsed to one side. What was left in his glass splashed into the air when he doubled back over in pain. He made a sound like a little dog, a kind of a whining yelp.
I was immobile as I watched him. The whine was too much, like a burst of static from a parallel universe. I wanted to give him a dope slap, tell him to quit talking bullshit. It was all piling too high, and I couldn't get a handle on it. He stood for a moment, regaining his balance. It was like sand running out of a glass, the way he reset his face to blankness. It only added to the sense of unreality of the scene, watching him do that ultra-Zen focus thing. He unzipped his jacket and took his left arm out, then slipped it off his right. A ring-shaped tracing of blood showed around an oblong lump under his right arm. For some reason, it wasn't the blood that brought me back to myself, that convinced me of the reality of what I was seeing. It was the Mets T-shirt he was wearing. It must have come off of someone else's body, since Ben was a White Sox fan. He lifted his face to mine. “I guess my adrenaline was running pretty high when I taped it up and changed clothes. I didn't really hurt at all. It sure as shit hurts now. I'm going to need you to help me take my shirt off. Or cut it off. Either one.” He closed his eyes, then opened them again quickly as he tottered. “Jesus, listen to me. What do you think, Charlie? Is it the booze or the blood loss?”
I put an arm around his shoulders, and a hand under his left elbow. “I think you're a god-damned idiot, Ben. That's in addition to being a stupid-ass drunk. Are you sure you won't go to the hospital? They know what they're doing at the hospital, you know.” He shook his head. I sighed. “Asshole. I'm gonna put you on my bed to sew you up. Let me spread a couple of towels on the bed. I can use a couple of T-shirts for bandages. You're lucky I did laundry this week.”
“Don't forget the vodka.”
“Sorry, mate, I'm cutting you off. You're reeling as it is. I don't know how much blood you've lost, but you've had enough vodka for now. I don't want you going into shock.”
“I haven't had that much. Besides, I'm pretty sure the pain will keep me awake.” He was blinking too much, and starting to slur.
“You're determined to make me nervous about this, aren't you? Hang on, lean against the dresser while I spread out this stuff. Are you OK? I'm going to let go now, OK?” He nodded with a glassy-eyed look. I yanked out both of my clean towels and spread them on the bed.
I led Ben to the bed and he laid down on the towels. I mumbled an apology as I pulled the pillow from under his head and folded it under his feet to prop them up. I pulled off his shoes and then covered his legs with the blankets. All of my T-shirts had sayings or band logos on them, but I turned a couple of them inside out and laid them at the ready. I went back to the kitchen to get the threaded needles and the vodka bottle. On the way back I got my other towel from the bathroom. I set my load on the floor near Ben and knelt down.
He was breathing deeply and steadily. “Quit stalling.”
“Oh, shut up.” I responded. “Do you want this done fast or done right?” I had no real confidence that I could do it either way. I really wanted another drink, but knew that I needed to be a clear as I could manage. If I had to do this, I wanted very badly to not fuck it up. I took a moment to calm myself and visualize what I was going to do. Improv wasn't my strong suit, but I knew how to work it inside a set scene. I was going on stage as a doctor, doing some emergency first aid at the scene of an accident. Got it.
I reached back and opened a drawer of my desk. I pulled out a roll of duct tape and a pair of scissors. I cut away Ben's shirt and saw his makeshift bandage. A blood-soaked oxford shirt was rolled up and taped against his chest. I reached for the vodka bottle and poured some into a cupped hand. I rubbed my hands in the alcohol, then repeated the process.
“Yes, Charlie?” He sounded way, way too calm.
“This is going to hurt like a sonofabitch. Do you want me to give you the play by play as we go along, or just surprise you?”
Ben closed his eyes for a moment, then said, “Play by play. Skip the color commentary, though. I already know it's bad. Just clean it up, sew closed anything major, then sew it all up. A blanket stitch might be pretty.”
“Take what you can get, Martha Stweart. Right. I'm gonna peel away this bandage. Hopefully it's not sticking to the wound.”
He didn't respond. I took hold of the two upper pieces of duct tape, and pulled steadily downward. They came away easily. I tugged on the wadded shirt, which had bound itself to him. It suddenly came free, and fell away from his chest.
Ben breathed softy. Slow pulses of blood ran from his chest onto the towels. A meaty, half-moon shaped flap peeled away from his chest, dried mats of blood separating as they softened in the fresh flow. I separated the sodden shirt from him, and pulled away the rest of the tape.
He continued, breathing meaningless monosyllables in a low whisper. I lifted the flap and watched the blood flow out in its slow pulses. There was a minor artery in there somewhere that I had to close, or he'd just keep bleeding through the stitches. The trouble was, I couldn't see anything, even with the lamp over my shoulder. There was too much coagulated blood.
“Ben, I'm going to clean this wound.” He nodded. I picked up the bottle, put my thumb over the lip and let a slow trickle go into the wound. He barked, hard. His legs kicked a bit, but he held as still as anyone could have. Sudden tears ran down his face, as the slop of blood and vodka ran onto the floor.
I stuck the needle into the meat below a tiny hole that was giving a little squirt with every one of his pulses. I looped it back around and made a knot. I pulled on the loose ends to tighten it. Ben hissed, in and out. The meat tore a little, but the knot held and the bleeding stopped. I lifted the bottle again, showed it to Ben. He nodded, and wept softly. He choked off his breath as the stream of vodka hit him again. I sopped up as much as I could and waited. Blood seeped from the edges, but there wasn’t any more pulsing. I snipped off the trailing ends of the thread around the stitches I’d put in, and looked at the rest of the wound.
I said quietly, “Ben, this isn’t as bad as it could be, but I need to pinch this closed before I can sew it.” He nodded, and took another breath. I wanted to tell him that the muscle was too thick just to sew up the flap. I’d have to do a double layer of stitching, once through the muscle to pull it all together and again through the edge of skin to close it up. It was just going to tear open again if I didn’t do it that way. I wanted to warn him that it was going to hurt, bad.
I didn’t say anything more. I poured more vodka on my hands, rubbed them and picked up a fresh needle. I bent to my work. He grunted and hissed. After the fifth stitch into the thick part of the flap, his animal sounds came with every shallow breath, a steady repetition as I stabbed and pulled, stabbed and pulled.
“Pinching closed.” I said. He jerked his head again and again as I pushed the two pieces of slippery meat together, pulling the thread through to work it closed tight. By the time I’d finished, his grunts had given way to sobs, coughed out on the same regular cadence. He was crying through his grunts when I finished. The flesh was tearing around some of the thread, but the bulging, ugly mess was holding.
“Home stretch, buddy. I’ve got to close it up now. A little more stitching.” His face turned to mine, and he shook his head from side to side. “I’m sorry, we’re almost done. This won’t hurt as much, I promise.” I lifted the bottle to his lips, and spilled a small sip onto him. The tears ran down his face, disregarded as he huffed in and out.
I picked up another needle. He flinched at the sight of it, then closed his eyes, hard. I stuck the point through the uplifted edge of skin. Back and forth my needle worked. I recalled hearing that the better the surgeon, the fainter the scar. Ben was going to have the most disgusting scar anyone had ever seen. His lips moved silently, saying something to himself, some calming cadence. I was in the thin part of his skin. He twitched slightly as I tugged the wound closed with every other pull of the thread.
I tied off the last stitch and snipped the thread. I poured the last of the vodka over the wound and waited. Ben didn’t move. I watched his chest rise and fall in shallow breaths. “Ben?” His eyes flickered. “I just wanted to make sure you hadn’t died of shock. You’re still alive, right?” His lips twitched in acknowledgement. I eased him up off of the towels and used them to clean up the mess on the floor. I climbed to my feet. My legs were shaky as I got a fresh garbage bag from the kitchen. I also got my roommate’s half bottle of tequila, and a tube of antibiotic ointment from the bathroom.
I knelt by him again. I slathered the wound with ointment, then laid a clean T-shirt against the wound. I taped it loosely to his side. Standing again, I pulled the covers over him. He opened his eyes and nodded slightly. I laid my extra blanket over him. I stripped off my clothes, and threw them along with everything else into the plastic garbage bag. Tying the bag closed didn’t help the alcoholic reek very much.
I put on a clean sweatshirt and jeans. After I washed my hands and face in the bathroom, I returned to my room to sit on the floor, my back again a wall. I set the countdown timer on my watch for 60 minutes, then took three pulls at the tequila bottle, one right after another. I sat and listened to Ben sleep. I remembered thinking that I should go score some Valium in the morning. Ben was going to be hurting wholesale. I don’t know when I fell asleep, but it didn’t take long.