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The Talented Mr. Benson

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I read a line in a book once, a pretty well known book, it went something like:

"Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, just remember that all people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."

And when I read that, I thought that since no one had less advantages then I had, I could criticize anyone I damn well pleased even if the person told me to call him "dad" and to "keep a civil tongue in my head." Not that he read the book or gave it to me to read, the man was illiterate as the day he was born - he even sold away the family farm with an X on the line. I got the book at school, on the few days he allowed me to attend. But I'll stop there, it is bad luck to speak ill of the dead. Bad luck is a better reason not to criticize than having advantages.

When Dad died I thought my bad luck was over. Ma was off to Aunt Penny in Tennessee, to better look after her cough, and with dear Mary down in the earth and free from sorrow these four years now, I thought of myself as finally free, liberated, and independent. No chance. Turns out the state of West Virginia has different words for teenagers who run card games, play lookout for dope growers, and "impersonate an officer of the law during the course of his duties", and they aren't "free, liberated and independent." Thankfully the upstanding sheriffs of West Virgina aren't keen on checking the backs of trucks and Washington D.C was only a few small hours away.

Washington D.C. It was the easiest deal I ever made. Everyone was making a deal on every street-corner. It only took a few rough nights and black eyes before I figured out trade wasn't my thing. I can't pass for tough, not in the darkest alley, and I didn't want to work cheap. Thankfully, you hear things, other places, bars without signs, places near Logan circle, all you need to get in is the right outfit and a winning smile - you can just sit right down at the bar and cast a lure and there is no better bait then a fresh borderline 18-year old face. I called myself James Jackson then. Thought it sounded slick, like a movie star.

And that's when I met him.

That's when I met Monty.

Mr. Montgomery Evans Penistone De Verre. Permanent Vice President at Brown Brothers in Manhattan. "Monty" to his friends. "Monty-Bags" to his friends behind his back. He was a famously outsized outcast, a big sweaty relic of the Roaring 20s, too rich to ignore but too flamboyant to be taken seriously. He'd long ago ceased to be a threat to anyone but his small circle of rich widows, aging silent film stars, hustlers, and other waxworks. Monty was celebrating his 25th birthday within a whirlwind of well-wishers, he said at some point he decided to celebrate them backwards and that's when me, in my too-small tux-jacket-without-the-the-rest-of-the-tux caught his eye.

"Barman! Edward! Give this boy an Orange Blossom!" He pointed at me.

"Have you ever had an orange blossom before boy?"

"I have not sir." The drink arrived and I sipped it. I admit, I may have exaggerated my reaction a bit.

"And what do you think of it?" He asked, the flower in his absurd white tuxedo already wilting and rumpled.

"I think it's the best thing I ever put in my mouth."

Monty erupted in laughter while a mass back-patting from his entourages ensued.

"Well, then you must have another." He snapped his fingers at the Barmen. Edward.

It didn't take long for me to become Monty's "favorite". You learn a lot in the backs of trucks. He even got me a token salary and position at Brown Brothers.

London. Paris. Venice. Champagne and oysters for breakfast. Private train cars with swaying chandeliers. Opium pipes he swore where used by the last Dowager empress. It was like 1929 never happened. The entire world shrunk down to his silk pillow chambers and diners with duchesses - well the ones that would still talk to him. He introduced me as his "valet" and they nodded as their own "escorts" silently sat down beside us.

You learn a lot when you don't talk at dinner. You learn how people move, how they sit, how they decide to make eye contact and why. How they talk about something is just as important as what they talk about. So I sat there and listened to the last branches of the Old World aristocracy talk amongst themselves.

So of course I started to steal from him.

Monty spent so much, he wouldn't notice some skimming here and there. The change he threw into the drawers was more than I'd seen in one place in my life. If he was going to run around devouring the world I might as well be there with the biggest net I could find to catch the crumbs. He was forgetful, careless. I sold a ring he'd worn once to the Austrian Opera to pay for my mother's continued care. He never noticed it was missing. More then that, I made myself responsible for him. He'd been left to an ever-shrinking array of servants to make sure he got up and did things. I made sure he got up and did things -on time- I wasn't going to sit by the pool and look pretty (even if I was, fresh from the Rivera, very pretty and very tan in my white shorts). I was going to learn how Monty kept his absurd existence going, the trusts, the gifts, the favors, and how I could not only take a little off the top for myself but also make myself the best caretaker Monty had ever had. I was never cross, never harsh, never in discord. Monty just always ended up seeing things my way.

For god's sakes, the man couldn't draw a bath for himself. If he wanted to replace me. he wouldn't know how. I was doing him a favor. Some people just wanted to take the money and run. I was looking for a long-term investment.

Which is why it was so awful when he got sick.

At first I thought it was Manolo, the nurse a friend of a friend recommended. It took me weeks to suss out the truth, Manolo's family had struck some deals during the Spanish Civil War and made out like bandits. Manolo just likes his job, and likes being near rich old women when they're writing their wills even more. And Manny likes sailors and longshoremen even more then that. Without Manolo as a suspect, I kept suggesting new places to go. New countries. New air. New people. Everywhere we went to Monty just got sicker and sicker.

That's when I noticed it. The nasty little blonde spec in the corner of my vision, our shadow in our worldwide jaunt, the thing Monty was trying so hard to keep from me. Another boy he'd been giving Orange Blossoms to, a younger one, a rich and parent-less one who was mixing something else into the drinks he gave Monty back and kept him weak and confused and infatuated. Not because he needed it, not cause he loved him, but because he wanted to see if he could. Twisting Monty around his bony little prep school finger.

Thankfully, the rich have blind spots. They're too used to other people looking out for them. It only took a few calls to Manolo and his nautical friends when Blonde Shadow was back in Spain on his yacht for some crucial rigging to go awry, some basic maintenance to slip and cascade into a very unfortunate drowning. Too bad, young life cut short -blah blah blah. I thought that would be the end of it.

But Monty's reaction, I couldn't predict that. He got worse. So much worse. He was held together with spit and tissue paper during our last night, at the Sir. Francis Drake in San Fransisco, shaking and muttering to himself, saying the name of that awful blonde boy over and over, each time like a slap in the face.

I know gossip says he died on on top of me. Sorry to say it was a lot more prosaic then that. I tried to wake him for breakfast and he didn't wake up. I took care of the body and the arrangements. I was the closest thing he had to family. His funeral was all titled royalty and rent boys. It really should've been more fun then it was.

I was left with some engraved gift silver cigarette cases, some jewelry, a few suits, and a pile of petty cash. Hardly something for a 27 year old to build a new life with.

But I did have an awful lot of his stationary and samples of his signature and his rolodex and I knew there was this big ad firm in Manhattan that needed new people and they'd rush through a Monty De Verre hire. Someone named Bert owed him a huge favor from back when. So that's what I did. I figured Bob sounded like a nice, trustworthy mid-western name.

Why Advertising?

Well, it's not like it's real work.