Three detached people find each other against all odds. The world leaves the three of them high and dry but, in the most unexpected of circumstances, the encounter between them creates a most wonderful friendship. Two solitary exiles named after tyrants and one lonely alcoholic – whom we, the writer insinuates, would probably call weirdos – tie their fates. The delicate humor, the fine writing and the narrator’s confident tone brings us one of the most optimistic and cheerful pieces, despite the plot’s very morbid backdrop. The Last Words of Benito Picone is a wonderful urban tale, a contemporary legend without an ounce of irony which reminds you of literature’s power to simply put a smile on your face and warm your heart.
It began in a hailstorm in 1975 when Benito Picone trotted across Market Street with his briefcase gripped overhead, shielding him both from the falling sky and, inadvertently, the oncoming Buick. His legs buckled on the hood, his shoulder smashed a spider web into the windshield, and his arms pin wheeled as all 296 pounds of Benito Picone spun from the roof. He seized at the air. His briefcase burst in a cartoon flurry of papers. Hailstones as wide and white as dice turned Market into a mile-long craps table. The fabric of his trench coat, suit coat, waistcoat, and trousers beat with the flapping of a hundred waiters laying tablecloths, and amid the fireworks flowering in the dark skies of his consciousness he did not once consider the shameful heft of his body. Weightless for the first time in his life, he torqued in a horrible arc of beauty and landed in darkness.
When Benito woke, “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music was playing on the radio—crisp apple strudel; doorbells; sleigh bells; schnitzel with noodles—and he realized that the personal hell to which his immortal soul had been rendered sounded an awful lot like Austria. But he wasn’t dead, not quite. A smock had replaced the herringbone three-piece he still wore weekdays, even though two months earlier he had lost his office lottery pool, his temper, and his job, in that order. The glossy bracelet on his wrist read St. Francis Memorial. Relief flooded the blue channels of his circulatory system. There was still time. He could still say his last words.
Over the years, Benito had paid much thought to his death. He considered himself a philosopher; others considered him an asshole. When he turned thirty, he began a nightly habit of recording his last words on a notepad in case he expired in his sleep: the end is a ballet without music or dancing; the end is relief. Benito had something, many things, in fact, to say about love and sorrow and pride and betrayal and forgiveness and beauty. The problem was that no one was the least bit interested in hearing them. Which made his last words a final chance to convert his failures into wisdom-building exercises, a last gasp to save himself from who he was. Who wouldn’t want to listen to the final dispatch from a man walking over the edge? Whose ears wouldn’t perk to hear one soul’s answer to the question mark that punctuates every life? Those who had never paid him a moment’s thought would lean in to hear what he had to say as he crossed over. Knowing this, knowing that a good ending can redeem a bad story, Benito had struggled to cram the sum self-knowledge of his thirty-nine years into a pithy single-sentence serving of wisdom that proved once and for all, to all the detractors, that Benito Picone did not live in vain.
“The end is a drizzly evening and I cannot take my umbrella with me,” he said in Italian to the reticulated ceiling tiles. Not the most profound last words, but a good deal better than those of other great men (Conrad Hilton: “Leave the shower curtain inside the tub”).
“That’s no Spanish I’ve ever known.” The sentence was pushed through the crooked maze of an East Coast accent. It came from the adjacent bed, where a birdish woman propped on a half-dozen pancake-thin pillows observed him with her head at an inquiring tilt. She had the dazed pallor of a cave dweller dragged into daylight. Had Benito not just uttered his last words, he might have explained that Italian and Spanish weren’t the same language, but you could spend a lifetime righting what Americans got wrong. He had only moments left.
Translucent tubes drew blood from one arm and streamed gray fluid into the other. A bleak epiphany: in the end, he was no more than a transit station for disturbingly opaque liquids. Beneath the gown, bruised continents had risen from his torso. His left leg lay in a splint and a fat foam noose halfheartedly strangled him. His abdominal organs were as tender as composting produce. What had happened? He could only summon a dream of flying geese. Then a silver Buick, hailstones, his soul vacuumed into the sky.
A nurse entered. Benito turned as much as the beefy foam headlock would allow. “You’re lucky to be alive,” she said, in a tone suggesting that she was not.
“But I’m dying,” Benito clarified.
He hadn’t set out to die that day, but now that it was happening, he received it as the arrival of a long-lost uncle he both loved and feared. He had no one on this side of the earth to say goodbye to, no one to write his obituary, no one to attend his funeral but a weak-chinned landlord who would probably reach into the casket to frisk his pockets for spare change.
On the threshold now, he looked back and saw that the life he was leaving looked a lot like his apartment, a windowless cube of despair remarkable only for the reek of the litter box that doubled as an ashtray ever since his cat had left him. The oddly worded English emergency instructions alarmed through him: proceed to the exit as quickly as possible.
“Please, get a pen and paper,” Benito entreated. “You must record my last words.”
The nurse didn’t move. She had a deadpan affectation, blunted over time by the nonsense of patients like Benito. The fatigue of a double shift was war-painted in purple beneath her eyes.
“My vitality is seeping from me!” he insisted. “I see a bright white light. I should move toward it, no?”
The nurse flicked the wall switch and the ceiling light went out.
“That better?” she asked.
No, it wasn’t.
“The light at the end of the tunnel may well be a 60-watt incandescent,” the nurse said, “but it’s not the one over your head.”
“But I’m dying,” he said, more wish than lament.
“The worst you got on you is a broken leg, generally non-fatal among non-equines,” she said.
“But I was hit by a car,” he protested. “I was in a serious collision. I shouldn’t be alive in this hospital room. I shouldn’t be alive.”
The nurse, in no need of further convincing, switched on the light as she left. The woman in the adjacent bed turned up the radio. It was Sonny Bono. Sweet mortality, come swiftly.
The next morning, to Benito’s disappointment, he woke up. The woman in the adjacent bed stared at him.
“Were you watching me sleep?” he asked.
“The TV’s broken,” she said. She introduced herself as Marie.
They passed the next two days in quiet conversation. Marie had been an eleven-year-old orphan, a nineteen-year-old widow, and was presently a thirty-year-old alcoholic and addict. She had no children and wanted none. After a childhood in Maryland and an adolescence in New Jersey, the palm trees lining the Embarcadero never failed to amaze her. She’d been picked up on the street the previous evening with alcohol poisoning, and the doctors were taking the opportunity to observe a cardiac condition. Her honesty unsettled Benito, who suspected that mental well-being depended upon a facility for selectively dismissing reality. At one point, she asked him what it had felt like, thrown from the launch pad of a windshield up into flight.
Benito tried to recall the pain, the shock, the pristine panic of the moment, but all he could remember was an eerie weightlessness. “Like swimming, maybe.”
“What I imagine swimming feels like. I never learned to swim.”
“Wait,” she said. “You grew up on an island and you never learned to swim?”
Benito had already told her that as a boy he’d emigrated from Lipari, a barren volcanic island three hours by ferry north of Sicily.
“My mother was old world Calabrese,” he said. “To her mind, superstition was the only logic of an irrational world, and learning to swim would invite drowning as certainly as visiting the doctor invites disease. Her philosophy was that you had to surrender yourself to the Fates by not preparing for any disaster or misfortune, and that by offering your humility and powerlessness to them, they would keep you safe.”
“And you still got hit by a car,” Marie pointed out.
“In America, the Fates are more impressed with individual accountability.”
“Is your mother in San Francisco?”
“She’s dead,” he said. He had been there when she went. Her last word had been his name. “Common cold became pneumonia. Never went to the doctor.”
“Just because you’re wearing a prophylactic doesn’t mean you’re not getting fucked.”
She had a point, but Benito wasn’t sure exactly what it was. He readjusted his casted leg, but couldn’t shake the memory of air, of weightlessness. He’d always wanted to learn to swim. A couple times, he’d signed up for lessons at the Presido Y, and had once even gotten as far as the locker room. But when he’d changed into his suit and taken an honest look at himself in the mirror, he’d immediately thrown his shirt back on.
“Do you swim?” he asked.
“In one liquid or another,” she said.
By the third day, Benito conceded that his broken leg would only kill him if he were pursued by a large predator. The nurse informed the two patients that they would be discharged shortly. Neither had insurance and they were required to appear at the billing office before departing.
When the nurse left, Marie pulled the IV from her hand. She stripped her gown without turning away. She was androgynously streamlined, welded from knotted angles, a Giacometti with better skin. Her whole body hung from her clavicles. Benito’s shock (when had he last seen a woman naked?) fermented to an excitement (when had he last seen a woman naked!) that immediately diluted upon realizing that he was so insignificant a sexual being Marie hadn’t even thought to close the curtain between them before undressing. She put on jeans and an oversized T-shirt that irresponsible wash cycles had thinned to a gauzy translucence. There was no indication she’d remove either anytime soon.
“Let’s boogie,” she said.
Benito was unaccustomed to disobeying authority figures in uniform, even a nurse’s uniform. He was even less accustomed to receiving invitations to boogie. He grooved on after her.
“Hurry up.” She held open the emergency exit for him.
A broken leg seemed like a reasonable excuse for a limp, but a childhood of Catholic catechism and fascist schooling had conditioned him to submit to the imperative mood. The stairs stretched four floors. Benito gripped the handrail, gave his broken leg a tomcat lift, and pogoed down on his good foot. Two legs were barely enough to support all of Benito when he was at his best, and he hadn’t been at his best since 1954. His one good leg was, as his father had often said of Benito himself, “just less than adequate” Marie wrapped his left arm over her shoulder. It seemed profane that she should place her lovely neck in the stockade of his unwashed armpit.
At the bottom of the stairwell, she snipped their hospital bracelets with scissors swiped from the nurse’s station. Benito used all ninety-eight pounds of Marie as a crutch as they crossed the lobby. The deeply engrossed security guard didn’t peer up from his funny pages as they passed.
“Shall we?” Marie asked, opening the door to a parking lot blotched in gray puddles. They stopped under a tree. The leaves shivered with the breeze, spattering droplets on them. “Standing under a tree when it’s raining keeps you dry. Standing under a tree when it’s stopped raining keeps you wet,” Benito said.
“That’s some real deep shit.” Marie rifled through her pockets, searching for bus fare. “You got any change?” she asked.
“Where are we going?” he asked. He had almost said you instead of we. They had shared a hospital room, but he wasn’t sure they were ready to share the intimacy of a personal pronoun.
“You got any change?” she asked again, ignoring his question.
His pockets were empty, save for his apartment keys and a cemented wad of partially used tissues, but he patted them anyway. They had no money for a bus and took a taxi instead, hoping Marie’s recluse neighbor would spot them the fare. As the taxi turned down Pine, Marie’s last word jangled in his head: change, change, change.
A quartet of sharp knocks startled Josef Lavrov from his nap. Marie, almost certainly. She was his only visitor. He didn’t like visitors. The link of causality between these two facts was as prominent on his horizon as the Golden Gate Bridge.
“I’ve brought company,” Marie announced as he slid away the security chain. The poor man at her side was a flight of stairs away from cardiac arrest. His leg was casted in plaster and his voluminous thigh spilled over the top of the cast like a soufflé.
Marie made introductions before borrowing a few dollars to pay the taxi.
“My leg,” Benito said. “I need to sit.”
The fat man locked eyes on Josef’s most prized possession, a rococo Second Empire-style dining chair. Josef had found it in the window of a Haight Street consignment shop three months after his petition for political asylum had been cleared. Its dark hue bespoke Third World deforestation; its seat was goose down plumped in imperial purple velvet; its design a work of calligraphy. He had pressed his nose against the Haight Street shop window, incredulous that a chair built for royalty would be sold here, on the street, for anyone to buy. Nothing better embodied how far he’d come from the featureless furniture of his homeland. He had lived for that chair his first year in America, saving one of the four hourly dollars he earned folding fortunes into fresh-baked fortune cookies. Crest rail, ear, lancet arch, pierced slat, stile, quatrefoil, knee, cabriole leg, claw-and-ball foot: he learned the English words for every part of that chair before he acquired the vocabulary for half of what filled a grocery store vegetable aisle. On the first anniversary of his defection from the Soviet Union, Josef went to the consignment shop and bought the chair with ones and fives.
It was toward this treasured chair that Benito’s wide posterior descended.
Josef closed his eyes at the moment of impact. The chair hardly creaked, every bit the masterpiece the consignment store clerk had called it.
“Lovely old thing you have here,” Benito said with a light lilt to his accent that Josef couldn’t identify.
“Benito. This is what? Spanish?”
“Why does everyone think I’m Spanish? Italian. As in from Italy.”
“Ah yes,” Josef said, snapping his fingers. “Of course, of course. With the pizza and the popes. Benito like Mussolini.”
Benito looked like he’d been caught passing gas in a packed elevator.
Josef was delighted. “I joke, I joke,” Josef said. “But tell the truth, your father names you after the dictator, no? He wants for you to become strong leader, brave man, yaytsa as big as oranges. Tell the truth, I am right, no?”
“I was born in 1935,” Benito said softly. “Benito was a very popular name at the time.”
Josef clasped his hands together, hardly able to contain himself.
“OK,OK. You are named after for Mussolini. In Italy, this is maybe very good.
But not so much in America. Why don’t you name yourself for Benjamin or Benny?
“I considered it,” Benito said. “But your name is your name. When Americans visited Italy in the 1930s, they had to change their names. Benny Goodman became Benito Bounuomo. Louis Armstrong became Luigi Braccioforte. It didn’t seem any better doing the reverse.”
“I am named Josef because my father had very much respect for Josef Stalin,” Josef confessed. It wasn’t the sort of thing he freely admitted, but he felt an instant affinity with this stranger who understood the weight of a tyrannical namesake.
Benito leaned forward, alert. “Well, you know, Stalin killed many more people than Mussolini ever did.”
“Wrong side of history, right side of World War II,” Josef countered.
“Stalin was no good, this I know, but Mussolini, he goes palling around with Hitler.”
“Still, I think most people would agree that Mussolini was less evil than Stalin.”
“Stalin destroyed fascism and saved civilization. Mussolini and Hitler played on the same Risk team. No comparison.”
“I’ve always wanted to meet an Adolf,” Benito said, stretching his arms in a hoop above his head. “Imagine being saddled with that name? Talk about mother issues.”
“An Adolf would be very impressive,” Josef agreed. “I have never seen one in the wild myself. America is not their natural habitat.”
They discussed the merits and downsides of their namesakes for several minutes. Josef surreptitiously peeked at his watch.
“Looks like Marie got lost on her way back,” Benito said.
Josef suspected that Marie had taken whatever change was left over from the taxi fare, if she paid the fare at all, and had deposited it at the corner liquor store. But he wasn’t willing to deprecate his neighbor in front of a man named after Mussolini.
“So, how did you get to America?” Benito asked.
“I am a defecator,” Josef said. Benito frowned and studied the scuffed rim of his loafer. Perhaps he’d never met someone who had defected. Josef tried to put him at ease. “Don’t be intimidated. It’s not so glamorous or so dangerous.”
“No,” Benito said. “I wouldn’t think so.”
Josef went on. “Have you heard of Vyborg? No? Famous for its taproots. This is all you must know about Vyborg. And that it is at the Finland border. So, in Vyborg I was the bus driver. Everyday I am driving the bus. I am a very good bus driver, everyone knows this. So one day the city transport director says, ‘Josef, tomorrow are arriving some lackeys from the Ministry of Ferrous Metallurgy. You must drive them around.’ I do not want to do this. I am very uncomfortable driving lackeys. But I say yes. That night, I am as frightened as a bird in a briefcase. What if the meetings go bad and they blame it on the bus driver? I do not sleep at all. In the morning, I take glass of brandy to sharpen my senses. It is no use. I doze off and I wake to a very big crash. Big blond Vikings everywhere. Three broken road barricades. A mess.”
“Wait. You drove into Finland?” Benito asked.
“First into Finland, then into the customs house. Very embarrassing. So I have two choices. Confess that I fall asleep while driving important lackeys. Lose my job. Maybe go to jail. Major international embarrassment. Or, say I am defecting. Your Yogi Berra, he advises when you see the fork in the road, take it. So, I take it. Here I am.”
Benito appeared genuinely impressed. “My mother and me just took a boat to New York.”
In truth, Josef had misjudged the military intelligence value of a municipal bus driver and the lifestyle he could expect in the West. He’d imagined America was filled with mansions and sports cars and fabulous wealth. It was, of course, they just didn’t belong to him or anyone he knew. His only possession of true value was an old chair that a fat man was getting comfortable in.
A few minutes later, Marie returned with a brown paper bag in one hand. Josef’s heart dropped a few centimeters. It was a lovely afternoon, the clouds were parting, this was no time to drink oneself to death. But when she opened the bag all she removed was a white bakery box of pastries looped in barber-pole twine.
“We’re both named after dead dictators.” Benito said, a trace of wonder to his voice.
“It’s important to find your people,” Marie said, and began distributing napkins.
The three met again for pastries the following Wednesday. And then the Wednesday after, and the Wednesday after that. Over time, their Wednesday evenings became a small rise of elevation that their weeks ascended toward and sloped from. In 1977, Josef tracked down the woman who had purchased the other five dining chairs from the Haight Street consignment shop. She had purchased those five chairs as a birthday present for her husband. Since letting those chairs into her house, her husband had lost his job, pension, and health, nearly everything but a head of hair so thick and beautiful the devil himself couldn’t pull it all out. Josef bought two chairs from her. She offered him the other three for free, but Josef knew better than to tempt bad fortune by taking chairs he had no use for. They sat in those chairs the week Benito announced he had found work and the week he announced he had been fired. They sat when Josef announced he had skin cancer and they sat in the waiting room when dark hailstones of malignant tissue was removed. In autumn 1978, Marie believed she had bottomed out when she pawned her father’s silver pocket watch, containing in its glass display the only image of her mother she’d ever seen. “You think you are the precious snowflake,” Josef told her, a heaviness to his voice that didn’t suit his second language. “But you are just a bit of water.” It took Marie all of 1979, 1980, and 1981 to string together a month of sobriety. She bought a six-foot tall Christmas tree and ornamented it with all her twenty-four hour chips. On December 13, 1982, the anniversary of her first year sober, Benito and Josef gave her the pocket watch they’d bought back from the pawnshop. Marie opened it. The hazy photograph of her mother stared back but it was not her mother’s love she felt in that room. “I didn’t believe I was deserving of this,” she said, unable to meet their eyes. “It’s just a watch,” Benito said. She looked to the two men perched on chairs fit for beheaded French aristocrats. One smelled of mildew and still limped from the accident. The other treated the indefinite article as the great intellectual challenge of his life. “I don’t mean the watch,” she said. Together they went to movies, all-night diners, and once, in the balmy breeze of May 1988, to Reno, where they played penny slots and drank free fountain cola from plastic cups. In 1990, Marie taught Benito, at the age of fifty-five, to swim while Josef heckled from the bleachers.
The cancer that had been removed from Josef’s arms reappeared in 1999, and had already colonized bone, blood, and brain before it was discovered. He died in the St. Francis cancer ward two months later. Benito and Marie were just arriving as he left. His last word was hello. For an extra $800, the gravedigger buried him upright and uncasketed, enthroned in his favorite chair. Benito spent his mornings walking aimlessly through neighborhoods that seemed to get younger, richer, and whiter by the year. Youth, he believed, was a disorder generally cured by time; regarding the latter two, he was open to suggestions. The year, decade, century, and millennium all turned over with the swipe of a second hand. He was sixty-five years old and had never used a computer. He was sixty-six, sixty-seven, sixty-eight, sixty-nine, seventy and he still had never used a computer. Wasn’t life supposed to have a progression, a building toward something? Wasn’t there a measurement beyond years to account for his time on earth? He didn’t know, and that not knowing felt sunken in him like the footprints of something certain that had fled long ago.
On an April morning in 2015, Benito and Marie went to Pier 39 and watched sluggish sea lions spill into the water, their slick heads domed in sunlight. “What time is it?” Marie asked. Benito glanced to his watch, but couldn’t speak. Invisible boulders pressed against his ribs. He raised a hand, the earth peeled away, blue sky everywhere. He was on his back now. Marie kneeled over him. She was pounding at his chest. He couldn’t breathe. He must speak. He must say his final words. He’d been waiting his whole life for the opportunity. When he tried to speak, he found that her lips had sealed his. She was blowing air into his lungs. She was trying to breathe for him. It was such a strange and unexpected sensation he forgot whatever words he might have said. It nearly brought him back. “Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go,” she pleaded. In all his years, he hadn’t imagined that the last words of his life would be spoken by someone else. He hadn’t imagined he would die so loved. All around Japanese tourists flashed photos of the white-haired woman holding the dead man on that otherwise fine April day.
*This story is published with the Jerusalem Writers Festival, 2016, that Anthony Marra is one of it’s guests.
*”The Last Words of Benito Picone” was originally published in ZYZZYVA