Swagazine Six



     "You can see him now."
     The doctor led them down the long, bright corridor, through several sets of doors, into the ICU and finally to room number three.
     "He's still a bit groggy," said the doctor, "so try and keep it brief."
     The three young men strutted into the room and up to the bed.
     "Hey, Ben," said Donny, "how ya doing?"
     "Hi, Ben," said Joe.
     "You look like shit, Ben," said Carl.
     Donny turned on him. "Shut the fuck up, Carl," he said, "he just got out of a heart transplant."
     "Yeah," said Joe, also turning on him. "What the hell's wrong with you?"
     "Hey," said Carl, "don't get all pissed at me."
     "Well watch your goddamn mouth."
     "Hey, fuck you Joe. He does look like shit."
     "I feel like shit," said a weak voice behind them.
     They turned back to Ben. He was smiling up at them, his eyes half-open. His lips were chapped and he was pale.
     "You look it, little brother," said Carl.
     "It's good to see you guys," said Ben. His voice was cracked and strained, and the tubes in his nose wiggled when he spoke. "How's Mom?"
     Donny bent down and put his hand on Ben's arm. "She's fine now that you're okay," he said. "She's at the clinic. They wouldn't let her leave because she's not looking so good lately. Otherwise she would have come."
     "She doesn't look good?"
     "She feels fine," said Donny. "I don't think it's anything to worry about."
     "How's the new ticker?" asked Joe.
     Ben blinked slowly a few times. "The doc says it'll be a few weeks before they know if my body rejects it. They want to monitor me. But they think it'll be fine."
     "Well," said Carl, "at least you don't have that shit on your genitals any more."
     Donny turned and stared up at him. "What the fuck are you babbling about now?"
     "His thing," said Carl, "that thing he had. Genital infection or something."
     "Congenital," said Donny. "It was a congenital heart defect, you asshole."
     "Yeah, that," said Carl.
     Joe punched him on the arm. "Moron," he said.
     "Hey!" said Carl, rubbing his arm. "What am I, a goddamn doctor now? How'm I supposed to know what it's called?"
     Donny looked back down at the bed. Ben's eyes were closed. "You sleeping?" he asked quietly.
     Ben's eyes opened slightly and he licked his lips. "No," he said, "not any more."
     "Carl was on TV," said Joe.
     "Yeah," said Carl, "I was at the Emmys and they got me on camera and everything."
     "He looked like an idiot," said Donny.
     Ben smiled and his eyelids drooped a bit.
     "I did not," said Carl. "Anyway, this guy I work with, he got me tickets to the Emmys and I hung around afterwards. I got to talk to some famous people. And I got an autograph." He pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and held it up. Something was scrawled on it in blue ink, and there was an orange stain on it that looked like spaghetti sauce.
     "Whose name is that?" asked Donny, peering up at the paper.
     Carl looked at it intently. "I forget his name," he said. "It's kind of hard to read, too."
     "Well, who was he?"
     Carl scratched his head. "Well," he said, "he was that guy in Robocop."
     "You mean Peter Weller?" asked Joe.
     "No, not him. It was the bad guy. The guy who shoots Peter Weller's hand off."
     Donny and Joe looked at each other then back at Carl. "I have no idea who you're talking about," said Donny.
     "Well," said Carl, "he's not real tall, and he's kinda balding with squinty eyes, and a pointy nose."
     "Sounds like a leprechaun," said Donny.
     "Hey, was he that guy in Leprechaun?" asked Joe.
     "What? No!" said Carl. "Haven't you seen Robocop?"
     "I haven't seen Robocop in years," said Joe.
     "Me neither," said Donny.
     Ben coughed. "Ow, shit," he said.
     "You okay?" asked Donny.
     "That hurts. It feels like I got kicked in the chest by a horse." He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. The tube in his nose wiggled slightly.
     "Try not to talk." Donny turned back to Carl. "What else has he been in?"
     "Well," said Carl, "you know that guy that was in The Crow? The bad guy?"
     "Yeah," said Donny, "he was also a bad guy in Robin Hood."
     "No, no," said Joe, "that was the dude from Die Hard."
     "Not that guy, the other guy. The guy he kills."
     "Kevin Costner?"
     "Did Kevin Costner get killed in Robin Hood, dumbass? No, it was the other guy."
     "You guys are both wrong," said Carl. "He wasn't in Robin Hood."
     "The bad dude from The Crow was too in Robin Hood," said Donny.
     "No, he wasn't."
     "It doesn't matter," said Joe, "because at least we know who you're talking about now."
     "Yeah," said Carl, "but it wasn't that guy. The guy I met just looks like that guy."
     "Well who was it then?"
     "He was the bad guy in Robocop. I can't believe you guys don't remember Robocop."
     "Well get over it," said Donny, "because we don't remember."
     "He must have been in something else," said Joe.
     "He was in lots of stuff," said Carl.
     "Like what?"
     "Hmm." Carl looked at the garbled signature and scratched his head again. "You know the guy that's on Millenium?"
     "You mean the dude who was the robot in Aliens?" asked Joe.
     "Yeah, that guy."
     "Yeah," said Donny. "So that's him?"
     "No," said Carl, "but he looks just like him."
     "This is not helping," said Joe.
     "Wait a minute," said Donny. "You said he looked just like the dude from The Crow."
     "Yeah, so?"
     "So, how could he look just like both of them? They look nothing alike!"
     "What else has he been in?" asked Joe.
     "Look," said Carl, "you're just going to have to watch Robocop again. I don't remember his name."
     "You talked to him and you don't know his name?"
     "No, I don't know his goddamn name!"
     Donny and Joe and Carl all glared at each other.
     An unfamiliar, muffled voice from behind them said, "His name is Kurtwood Smith."
     They all turned to look at Ben. His eyes were closed and he was breathing softly.
     "What did he say?" asked Joe.
     "What did you say, bro?" Donny gently shook Ben's arm. "What was that?"
     But Ben was sound asleep.


     Two days later, Ben was moved out of ICU and into a private room where he stayed for the next three weeks. He was looking and feeling better, and the doctors believed that his body was accepting his new heart. They told him that it was important he take it easy and try to stay relaxed, that the slightest excitement could cause his new heart to fibrillate erratically. They said he was young and strong and he was recovering quickly. He would be fine as long as he took it easy. He was going to be monitored for two more days and then he would be going home.
     He was sitting upright watching TV when Donny came into the room to tell him that their mother was dead.
     She had died at the clinic that morning. Donny said that it came suddenly, and without pain. He wasn't surprised -- the doctors had told all of them two months prior that the chemotherapy wasn't working and that the cancer had spread from her lungs to her liver and kidneys.
     The funeral would take place in a week.
     He gave Ben a hug and left.


     A few days later Ben was at home. He was sitting on the couch, nursing a beer, even though he knew he wasn't supposed to. He wasn't supposed to do anything. Lay off the booze, the doctors had told him, lay off the booze or it'll kill you. No booze, no fatty foods, no sex for a few months. They might as well have told him not to live for a while.
     He got up and went into the kitchen to take his medication. His scar was itching him terribly. And the more he scratched at it, the more it itched. He knew he wasn't supposed to be doing that, either -- the doctors had told him to lay off the scar until it fully healed. But it itched like something was under it, like he had to scratch down to the bone to relieve it.
     That night in bed he couldn't sleep. The itching was awful. He had smothered the scar in skin lotion (the doctors had told him not to do that) and it still itched. After three or four hours of tossing and turning, he finally fell asleep. He scratched at the scar in his sleep, in his dreams; it was uncontrollable.


     The next morning, the scar spoke to him.
     He was standing in front of the mirror, looking at his bloodshot eyes, when he heard the unfamiliar, muffled voice.
     "Good morning."
     He froze. Was someone in the house? It sounded close. Then he heard it again.
     "Good morning." The voice was coming from behind him… no, it wasn't behind him, it was beneath him. He looked down and saw nothing. He looked under the sink. Nobody.
     He heard the voice again, and his scar tickled him. "Hello?"
     He hesitated for a moment, then opened his shirt.
     In the mirror, he could see the full length of the surgery scar. It ran down the center of his chest, from two inches under his throat almost down to his navel. He saw that it was open. The folds of skin where the incision had been were slightly peeled back, as if they were lips or the opening of a giant clam, and his first thought was that it looked like a vagina. He felt like he was going to vomit.
     Then the vagina in his chest quivered slightly, formed the words "what is the matter" and he threw up into the sink.


     Ben sat on the cold linoleum floor and held his head in his hands.
     "This can't be happening," he said aloud.
     He looked down at his chest. A thin trickle of pinkish liquid was oozing from the scar and dribbling down his stomach. He stood up and turned on the water in the sink.
     "I need some more sleep," he muttered.
     He took the washcloth off the towel rack and ran it under the hot water. Then he dabbed at his stomach until the pink liquid was gone. He turned off the water, dropped the washcloth into the sink, and looked up at his reflection in the mirror.
     The scar formed a crescent-moon smile and asked if he was feeling okay.
     Ben just stared into the mirror, his mouth open, his eyes transfixed.
     "Stop talking to me!" Ben threw his fist into the mirror and it shattered.


     The scar talked non-stop for two hours. It asked Ben how he felt, what time was it, could he please rub a little more lotion on it. It told him that he needed to bandage his hand, that it was time to eat breakfast, that he was eating too fast, that he needed to chew his food more; it told him he was slouching. It criticized him for leaving his dishes in the sink, unwashed. It asked for more lotion. It promised to tell him all the secrets of the universe if it would just rub on a little more lotion.
     Ben covered his ears and stomped around the house, singing aloud. He switched on the stereo and turned the volume up to its highest setting. He jumped up and down and screamed. But still he heard the scar's voice.
     "I don't know why you're so upset, I'm only trying to help you know it's not like you don't need a little help, I mean look at you you're a mess, you haven't had a shower in two days, and if you would just rub a little more lotion on me you'd see that I'm not so bad and maybe we'd get along fine, and where do you keep the lotion anyways?"
     Finally Ben could stand it no longer and he got the lotion. He squirted the white aloe vera into the palm of his hand and hesitated. The scar was oozing again, and it was bright pink. He didn't want to touch it.
     "Come on, come on, what are you waiting for, that's the lotion right?"
     Ben touched his palm to the scar it and writhed against his hand. He worked the lotion into the folds of the skin, all the while trying not to gag as the scar sucked at him. It moaned and squirmed and let out a sigh of relief.
     Ben pulled his hand away. It was now covered in pink ooze.
     "Thanks, buddy," said the scar.


     The situation presented itself again and again over the next few days. Ben would wake to the sound of the scar talking or singing. Usually it was begging for lotion and promising to tell Ben the secrets of the universe. It would demand that he take his medication and have a good breakfast, then it would reprimand him about his eating habits. Ben hardly ever spoke back to it, and when he did it was to scream for it to shut up. That seemed to only aggravate the scar and it would beg for more lotion.
     On Sunday morning the scar woke Ben and reminded him that it was the day of his mother's funeral.
     Ben took a shower, shaved, lotioned the scar and got dressed in his only suit. He pleaded with the scar to be silent during the services. He promised the scar lots of lotion if he would only behave, and the scar happily agreed.
     The service was quick and quiet. Ben's family was small -- just him and his brothers -- and they didn't have too many family friends. The minister was a very somber man and he spoke eloquently, and everyone cried. Even the scar shed a pink, oozing tear.
     After the service, they all went out to dinner. There was a brief argument among Joe and Carl as to which restaurant (Joe wanted Chinese food, Carl wanted a burger, Ben didn't care), and it was Donny who finally suggested Italian. Donny was the oldest, and the meanest, and everyone always took his suggestions.
     They all talked on and on about their mother, how happy she was and how she didn't suffer at the end, and they did their best to convince themselves of this as they ate. Ben didn't talk or eat. He sat staring at his plate, unmoving and unnoticed.
     "Mom would have liked the service," said Joe. "Not too many people, not too lavish, not a lot of flowers."
     "She was simple, very simple," said Carl.
     "She liked it that way."
     "Simple."
     "Yeah."
     "Both of you jerkoffs are jerkoffs, you know that?" Donny glared at them from across the table. "She wasn't simple, she was poor. Her treatments and Ben's operation saw to that. And she had no friends. Otherwise the funeral would have been bigger."
     They bantered and quibbled for an hour while Ben stared at his plate. His chest was on fire, he wanted to scratch it and stab it and rub it with lotion. He wanted to get up from the table and run out of the restaurant, screaming, clutching at his chest, at his scar, at anything.
     The waitress cleared the table and brought them drinks, and Ben stared at his drink while the other three carried on their conversation.
     "Eric Clapton was the greatest guitarist that ever lived."
     "Is, Joe."
     "What?"
     "Is," said Donny. "Not was. The dude isn't dead yet."
     "Oh," said Joe. "Well, then he is the greatest."
     "I don't know how you can say that," said Carl.
     "I can say that because it's true."
     Carl snorted. "It isn't. And I'll tell you why. He's totally unoriginal."
     "The fuck he is!" shouted Joe.
     "Look," continued Carl, "everything the dude has ever done was copied from someone else. He borrows from Deep Purple, Hendrix, the Yardbirds…"
     "Wait a minute," said Donny, "Clapton was in the fucking Yardbirds."
     "What?" Carl scratched his head. "He was not."
     "Yes, he most certainly was."
     "See!" said Joe.
     "No, no, no," said Carl. "You're thinking of Cream or Traffic."
     "No," said Donny, "I'm thinking of the fucking Yardbirds. And Clapton wasn't even in Traffic."
     "But he wasn't in the fucking Yardbirds, either," said Carl. "That was Jimmy Page!"
     "Jimmy Page was not in the Yardbirds," said Joe.
     "Shut the fuck up, Joe," shouted Donny. "As if you would know shit from shit."
     "I know the guitarist for Led Zeppelin was not in the fucking Yardbirds!" Joe shouted back.
     "He most certainly was!" shouted Carl.
     "He was not!"
     Donny and Joe and Carl all glared at each other across the table.
     "Both of them were in the Yardbirds," said the scar.
     Everyone turned to look at Ben. Ben hadn't been listening; he was still looking sullenly at his drink. He glanced up to see that all eyes were on him. "What? What's up with you guys?"
     "What do you mean, both of them?" asked Carl.
     Ben blinked. "What did I say?"
     "You said they were both in the Yardbirds."
     "How would you know, Ben?" asked Donny. "You don't even like rock music."
     "Yeah," said Joe, "I thought you were into that country western shit."
     Ben got up from the table. "I'm not feeling too good, guys," he said. "I'll call you tomorrow." He turned and bolted from the restaurant, pounding on his chest as he ran.


     He argued with the scar in the taxi on the way to the hospital. The scar had only been trying to help, and anyway it was sick of listening to them bicker about who was in what band according to whom. "They're dolts," it said. "I'm pretty sure you're adopted."
     The taxi driver kept eyeing Ben suspiciously in the rearview mirror. When they got to the hospital, Ben tipped him five bucks and apologized for arguing with himself in his cab.
     In the waiting room, Ben filled out eleven forms and read a Highlights magazine. The scar whispered apologies and pleaded and asked for lotion, just a little bit, and would Ben please go ask the nice nurse if she has some behind her counter. Ben ignored it completely.
     A pretty intern stood in the doorway and called his name. She led him into a cold room, gave him a tiny robe and left. He took off his clothes and put on the robe. There was nowhere to sit but on a cold metal slab that looked like an operating table. Another twenty minutes went by. The scar was silent, probably sulking, and that was fine with Ben.
     The doctor came in, the same doctor that had assisted in the surgery. He was reading Ben's chart thoughtfully. "Good to see you again, Ben," he said without looking up. "How are you feeling?"
     "I feel okay, I guess." He shifted uncomfortably on the table. "But I think there's a problem with… the stitches."
     The doctor looked up. "Really? What sort of problem? You haven't been bothering the area, have you?"
     Ben shook his head. "No, but you see, the area has sort of been bothering me." He reached around behind his back and untied the robe, letting it slip down on to the table.
     The doctor gasped and took a step back. "Good god!"


     Ben was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the drugs to kick in. After the doctor regained his composure, he had leaned into Ben for a good half-hour with a lecture about what it meant to take care of a surgical entry wound and a new heart. He bandaged Ben's chest, drew some blood and prescribed him an armful of medicines. Ben had painkillers, antibiotics, antidepressants, immunosuppressants, vitamins, and god-knows what else. He took them home and happily ingested a handful according to the instructions on the labels and went to bed.
     He was almost asleep when the itching began. At first he thought he'd be able to tolerate it, but it got progressively worse as the night went on. Finally he could no longer stand it and tore the bandages from his chest.
     The scar gasped and coughed and sputtered. It begged for lotion. Ben got out of bed and retrieved the lotion from the bathroom.
     Groans of pleasure radiated from the scar as Ben rubbed the lotion into the layers of skin. "Thank you," cried the scar, "that really hits the spot."
     "I didn't do it for you, I did it for me. You itch really bad."
     "Sorry," said the scar. "I don't do it on purpose."
     Ben went into the kitchen, got a beer from the refrigerator and sat down at the table.
     The scar proceeded to talk. It talked for an hour, then another, and another while Ben drank beer after beer. He tried not to listen but the scar's voice was penetrating his drunken fog, and after a while it became obvious to Ben that he could not escape what the scar had to say.
     The scar made good on its promise and spoke of the secrets of the universe. It spoke of God and Heaven, of the nature of man, of the past and the future. It revealed how the Great Pyramids were made, and who made them; it spoke of the proof of alien existence; it revealed who really killed John F. Kennedy and John Lennon. It spoke of visions and prophecies and the end of the world. A great flood would come, followed by famine and disease, then a holy war that would annihilate all but a small handful of people on the planet. It said who would be spared and what kind of world would be rebuilt from the ashes.
     Ben was finishing his last beer and twirling the metal cap on the table with disinterest. He took a long pull at the bottle.
     "You want to talk to your mother?"
     Ben stopped in mid-swallow. He set the beer on the table and looked down at his bosom. "What did you say?"
     "I asked if you wanted to talk to your mother," said the scar. "I can let you speak to her through me."
     Ben quickly stood up from the table, sending the chair sprawling across the floor behind him. "That does it!" he shouted at his chest.
     "What did I say?" asked the scar innocently.
     "Just shut up! I don't want to hear another word!"
     "I'm only trying to help--"
     "Not another word!"


     All three of them had rushed over after the phone call. Ben had sounded sick, panicked. They knew he wasn't well -- they had seen it at dinner, and now he was raving like a madman over the telephone. Something about his tits being possessed by the devil.
     Donny was first through the door. "Now what, exactly, is the problem here, Ben?"
     "I'm sick, man. Real sick." Ben was sitting on the kitchen floor with his arms folded across his chest and his back against the refrigerator. Donny sat down on his heels and looked into his eyes.
     "Yeah," he said, "you don't look good."
     "He looks like shit," said Carl.
     Donny turned and glared up at him. "Shut the fuck up, Carl!"
     "Yeah, shut up Carl," said Joe.
     "Well, he does! It's not my fault!"
     "I feel like shit, too," groaned Ben. "It won't leave me alone and I think I'm dying."
     "What won't leave you alone, Ben?" asked Donny. "What's the matter with you?"
     Ben uncrossed his arms.
     Donny fell over. "Jesus fucking Christ!"
     "God damn," said Joe.
     "That's really gross," said Carl.
     "Hi guys," said the scar.


     The doctor came out to greet them. They all stood up and took off their caps.
     "How is he, doc?" asked Donny.
     "He's going to be fine," said the doctor. "His heart is okay, but he's totally reopened the skin where we performed the surgery. We've sutured him again, and I think we've got a handle on the infection. We had to give him a heavy sedative in order to get him bandaged -- he kept clawing at his chest and at the orderlies. He's also in restraints."
     "Can we see him?"
     "Not right now. He'll have to stay sedated and restrained until his infection clears up." The doctor coughed nervously. "Now don't be alarmed, but we've asked a specialist from the psychiatric ward to look at his case. He's extremely delusional and aggressive. He may have to stay here for a while. It's the best thing for him right now."
     "Oh, man," said Donny.
     "God damn," said Joe.
     "I told you he looked shitty," said Carl.
     "Shut the fuck up, Carl!"


     Ben's eyes slowly opened. He blinked a few times and tried to sit up, but his arms wouldn't move. Neither would his legs. He tried to lift his head to see what was holding him and was suddenly jolted by dizziness and nausea. He dropped his head back on the pillow and sighed.
     The pain in his chest was subsiding. He couldn't feel the scar; the folds of skin were no longer thrashing and contorting under his shirt, trying to speak. He could tell that they had closed him up again, bandaged him, and that the medicine was healing him. Soon his chest would be completely healed and the scar would be silent.
     He sighed with relief and realized that he was incredibly thirsty. How long had he been asleep? He couldn't remember.
     Ben tried to move his arms again. Something was strapped to his wrists and attached to the bed. Restraints. Now he remembered -- he had been struggling in terror and they felt it necessary to tie him up. They had fastened the restraints too tight and his wrists were starting to ache.
     And something in his left arm was pinching him. Or rather, it was stinging or scratching him. It must be the IV, he thought. He wondered why it hurt so much, why it itched like that. His arm was really starting to itch bad now, like something was under it.
     Like he had to scratch down to the bone to relieve it.




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