When I met Ben Vogel he was a year older than I was because he had to repeat the fourth grade.
“Why did you have to do that?” I asked.
“Because they’re out to get me,” he said.
“Who are ‘they?’” I asked, wondering who had it in for nine- and ten-year olds.
“People,” Ben said, “things. Mom says life is out to get me.”
“What are you talking about?” I said, shaking my head. “We’re only nine.”
“Ten,” Ben corrected me.
“How come you had to do fourth grade again?” I asked again.
“Paper cut,” he explained.
“A paper cut?”
“Come on,” I sniffed. “You’re makin’ that up.”
“Nope,” Ben countered. “I grabbed a piece of paper and it cut me under my fingernail. Got infected. Almost lost my finger and hand. The doctor cut it to fix it. See?”
I looked at the scar on his left index finger. It was thin, but long.
“Wow,” I said. I hadn’t ever heard of an infection from a paper cut before.
“There was a red line runnin’ all the way down my arm,” Ben elaborated. “The doctor said if he hadn’t cut it, I could’a died.”
“Wow,” I exclaimed again.
“Could’a died,” Ben repeated proudly.
I wasn’t sure having life kick your butt on a daily basis was something to be all that proud of, but Ben seemed to think so. He saw it, he told me later, as a battle of wills: his against the world, fate – whatever was trying to take him out.
When he was a baby, he had gotten the whooping cough – a disease that had practically disappeared from the developed world – and it nearly killed him. He had been hit by a car on his bicycle, fallen out of a tree on his head and knocked silly, and pulled from a swimming pool just as he was going under for the third time.
In high school and college, the bad luck continued. There were car wrecks, a couple of strange illnesses and one near fatal shotgun blast accidentally discharged in his direction by a local politician doing his best impression of a well-known vice-president.
Finally, Ben decided that rather than simply waiting for bad luck to come to him, he would adopt a proactive approach. Beat fate to the draw, so to speak. He would become an artist. Draw the scenes of his near-death encounters. Make them realistic and scary, not just for his own good, but also for the edification of an assumed, sympathetic audience. He switched his college major to Art and set about creating artistic representations of how the hostile world was out to get him.
At first, naturally, he failed miserably. His work was viewed as juvenile, petty, perverse, darkly pessimistic. He barely got the grades to graduate, but the artwork seemed to hold off the seemingly inevitable onslaught of bad physical luck. Then one day, a very strange thing happened.
A man in a dark suit came by Ben’s studio and purchased one of his paintings. The man had an art gallery, he said; wanted to sponsor a show of Ben’s works, he said; get his name out, get him some major money.
I went to Ben’s opening night at the Touch of Destiny art gallery. He had drawn the paper cut episode on canvas, highlighting, naturally, the long white scar on his finger. There was a stark, black and white pencil sketch of him breaking his knee in a fall and a colorful painting of him hanging in the air like some floating, suffering Jesus a la Salvador Dali. Ben sold a lot of paintings. Hooked up with a girl who looked like a supermodel.
“I beat it,” Ben told me, as he left the gallery to find a special bottle of Dom Perignon for the supermodel lookalike. “I’m the master of my fate; I control my own destiny.”
“Great,” I told him, thinking he shouldn’t push his luck too far. “Congratulations.”
I went outside to watch him zoom off on a fancy little scooter he had just bought. He barely made it around the corner when I heard the crash. Sure enough, not a block away, Ben had been hit head on by a bread truck.
I raced to his side and knelt down. I could tell he was done for. I leaned down to hear his final words.
“It’s over,” he whispered, “they can’t do anymore to me now. I won.”
“Sure you did, buddy,” I said, closing his eyelids.
The police arrived quickly and took charge of the scene. I gave them my statement and, sighing deeply, looked around. There was a liquor store across the street. They probably had Dom Perignon – and the supermodel would definitely need consoling back at the gallery.
“What the hell,” I said, “just his luck, ain’t it?”
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