Benny the Welder

     Benny could lay a bead like no one else. Known throughout northeastern Indiana as the go-to welder for the past twenty years, his career was set. He loved his work, everything about it, the feel of the tools, the sound of electrical popping, the smell, taking pieces of metal that were completely separate and joining them with a bond that was actually stronger than the two individual pieces were. But that was the trick, wasn’t it? Poor welders struggle with that but not Benny. Yes, Benny could lay a bead like no one else.
     This is really what made the accident the most difficult part for him. It wasn’t the searing pain when the small explosion happened, or that he lost half of his left arm. He lost his career, his love. He didn’t have friends or a wife. No kids. He had welding, and no one was going to hire a one-armed welder.
     While lying in his hospital bed he looked down at the gauze-covered stump at the elbow of his left arm knowing that his career was over and pondered his next move. He had an old 16 gauge shotgun at home but would need to run to the store for ammo, which he didn’t want to do because it would involve seeing and talking to people. He could take an overdose with the pain meds that he was sure the doctor would give him upon release and that would end things on a less violent note. It really couldn’t be too difficult he supposed.
     He slowly rose up from his bed and shuffled through the small restroom door. While washing his, well, hand he did something he’d only done once or twice in the last twenty years...he looked at his face in the mirror. The birthmark was still there. The same birthmark that haunted him all throughout his youth, that made him quit high school his sophomore year in spite of the fact that he was at the top of his class. The birthmark that made him find welding because he could spend his entire career behind the huge welding mask that covered his face. Of course it was still there. It would always be there until he was finally able to end his sad life and be cremated. Only then would it become the physical reality of the ashes that his life already was.
     He looked intently at his birthmark. It was a deep maroon color and covered most of his right cheek. To Benny, the most troublesome part of this hideous thing was that it was shaped roughly like the outline of what could be considered the rear end of a human, which “earned” him the nickname Benny Butt-face starting in elementary school. The cruel creativity of children always amazed him. The boys he knew throughout his youth could take anything at all, good, bad, whatever, and turn it into a banal, reeking pile of waste. So as he got older he just avoided people as much as he could.
     “No more of that,” he thought to himself resolutely, “This will be gone as soon as I get out of here, along with the rest of my miserable life.” 
     In a way, he was relieved that he would no longer have to bear the burden of living like this. He didn’t really believe in God so there would be no more of what he’d always known waiting for him in the afterlife. He was taken to church by his mother early on, but received the same treatment there that he had in school. His death will affect no one and probably wouldn’t even trigger an obituary in The Journal Gazette, Ft. Wayne’s newspaper.
     There was a knock on his open door and a nurse entered carrying a tray of food. “Mr. Nelson, time for lunch.”
     He looked away from her and said nothing as she placed the hospital food on the table next to him. “How are you feeling today, Mr. Nelson?” she asked in her best hospital voice.
     He remained quiet, but she waited.
     “Are you in pain? I can get you some more medication if you’d like.”
     He turned, “When do I get out of here?” he asked through gritted teeth. He looked right at her just to see where her eyes specifically would look. Yes, her gaze landed directly onto his right cheek, just like everybody else.
     “Uh, I believe the doctor is planning on releasing you tomorrow as long as there is no infection, but I’ll check for you.” With that she turned away and quickly shuffled out the door, Benny’s eyes pushing her along. He glared at the empty doorway for several minutes before looking back toward the wall in front of him and escaped back into his thoughts.
     Over an hour passed, his uneaten food still resting on the table. His eyelids slowly closed and he gave way to the weariness of spending two sleepless nights in the hospital.
     “Why are you in the hops-pital?”
     Startled a bit, his eyes shot open and looked over toward the sound of the words, and he saw a small girl standing just inside his doorway wearing a dirt-covered softball uniform. He kept his face straight ahead out of habit so that the person he was seeing wouldn’t be able to view the right side of his face. The girl looked to be about six, had auburn hair that was fashioned into two pigtails on either side, and freckles. She stood there casually with her right leg crossed over her left, head tilted slightly, and her left hand was fiddling with one of her pigtails.
     “Where are your parents?” Benny asked, trying not to sound annoyed, but he clearly did not want a conversation with this girl.
     “I don’t have a daddy, but my mommy is visiting my grandma next door. Grandma has ammonia I think,” the little girl replied, “They talk about grownup things and that’s boring. Why do you have to be here?”
     Benny’s eyes moved away from the girl and back to the wall in front of him. He slowly raised the gauzed stump of his left arm to show this little intruder and, he hoped, scare her a bit so that she would get out of his doorway. No such luck.
     “Your arm is gone! Why?” she asked.
     Benny sighed, his gaze remaining on the wall. “Welding accident.”
     “What is welding?”
     “It’s a construction procedure where you...it’s...it’s, this thing just blew up and my arm came off. That’s all.”
     “Did it hurt?”
     “I suppose so.”
     “Is it still hurting?”
     Benny had to get rid of this pest. “Not really,” he replied. As he said this he turned his face to look straight at her. This usually did the trick. Once people saw the hideous birthmark they would run for their lives.
     “You have a heart drawn on your face!” exclaimed the little girl.
     What? A heart? No, that wasn’t it! What was this girl talking about? It was a butt! Wait, he knew his own birthmark. It was seared into his mind even more than it was to his face. He visualized it: starting in a point near his right ear, broadening out to the right and left of the point, then coming back around down near his mouth to form...he jumped up out of his bed, barely remembering to pull the hospital gown together behind him so as not to give this little girl an unexpected sight on her visit to the hospital. He quickly walked into the restroom and looked into the mirror. His birthmark was an upside-down heart, plain and simple. He had never seen it, no one had seen it.  It was a heart, a heart. Why had he never seen it like this? He remembered countless times crying as a little boy telling his mom what the other kids called him and did to him, all the while his mom hugging him and telling him not to listen to them. Everyone he ever knew saw his birthmark one way. No one saw it differently. No one...until right now. He walked back toward his bed, past the girl, and slid under the sheet, astounded.
     “Are you OK?” asked the little girl.
     “I...I never...” Benny stopped.
     “My name is Hazel. What’s yours?”
     “Uh, Benny.”
     Hazel walked over to his bed and stuck out her hand. “Nice to meet you, Benny.”
     Benny reached across and shook her small hand. He looked into her eyes. “You see a heart, Hazel?”
     “Of course I see a heart, because that’s what it is! It’s obvious, you know!”
     Obvious? First of all, how old was this girl using a word like obvious? Secondly, no it wasn’t. No one had seen it.
     “No, no,” he muttered, “it isn’t obvious to me. It never has been.”
     “Maybe because you’re just looking at it in the mirror,” Hazel replied. “I sometimes don’t see things the right way when I’m looking in a mirror you know. My mommy tells me I am Hazel the Magnificent and I have to believe her because she wouldn’t lie to me, but I can’t tell that I’m magnificent when I look in the mirror.”
     Benny just stared at her for a moment. Hazel looked back, her face was alive and animated, full of childhood innocence and curiosity.
     She suddenly asked, “How will you tie your shoes since your arm is missing a hand?” She seemed to have moved on to another topic as if talking about his birthmark was a conversation about the weather or the price of milk at the grocery store.
     Benny looked at his stump. “I hadn’t planned on...” He stopped, realizing that passing along plans of his suicide probably wasn’t the kind of thing this little one needed to ponder at this point in her life. “I don’t know yet.”
     “Will you show me how to do it when you learn?” Hazel asked.
     “I don’t know how I can do that because I get out of the hospital tomorrow and I won’t see you again.”
     “I’ll have my mommy get your phone number and I’ll call you and see how you are doing.”
     “Um, I really don’t think that...” Benny stopped because Hazel had turned and run out of the door, presumably to find her mother. Things were not going as planned just as this past week had not gone as planned. Strange. When he was Hazel’s age there was no one around who saw him as she did. He has been haunted his entire life by the garish birthmark and what everyone saw and called him. How did she see these things? Children are honest and tell you what they are thinking many times, and many times we don’t want to necessarily hear what they have to say. But now it was all different. In the course of a scant few seconds his life had taken a turn. Now what would he do?
     He heard Hazel’s voice and a second set of footsteps. “Benny is in here. I want you to see the heart he wears on his cheek,” he heard her say, and they entered his doorway.
     Hazel’s mom wore a waitress’s outfit from Bob’s Big Boy, shared Hazel’s auburn hair and freckles, and seemed somewhat frazzled.
     “Sir, I am so sorry about this!” she said frantically, “Hazel has no filters and is the most curious human being I’ve ever known! We are so sorry to have bothered you!”
     Benny’s initial reaction was to turn his head in order to hide his birthmark, but he knew that this was frivolous. So, he just looked her straight in the eyes. Her gaze met his and never wavered, never looked toward his cheek. Hazel spoke and they both looked at her.
     “Isn’t it beautiful? Benny has a love cheek!”
     “Yes, honey, it is, but Hazel, we need to let Benny rest right now,” her mother said.
     Benny looked back at her. “There’s no problem, ma’am. It was nice to meet Hazel. You’re daughter is...a magnificent person,” he said.
     Hazel smiled and looked at her mother and loudly whispered, “I told him you say that to me all the time.”
     “My name is Claire,” she said holding out her hand. Benny extended his. “Hazel tells me that you are going to teach her how to tie her shoes with one hand.”
     “Yeah, well I didn’t really agree to that, but I suppose I can show her if I ever learn myself,” replied Benny, fumbling for some paper and the pencil that was on the table beside his bed. He scribbled his number and handed it to her. “Hazel can call me if she wants. I can’t guarantee I will pick up, but have her leave a message.”
     “We’ll do that for sure, Benny. It was nice to meet you, but we really need to get this little cherub home and cleaned up. She’s attending a friend’s birthday party later this afternoon.” She stuck out her hand once again, “Thank you for being nice to Hazel.”
     “Not a problem. Nice to meet you both.”
     Claire took Hazel’s hand and they started to leave. When they reached to doorway, Hazel stopped, turned and ran back to the bed. She leaned over the stump of Benny’s left arm, taking care not to harm it. Her face was a foot away from his. She reached out her tiny left hand and gently placed it on Benny’s right cheek. She looked him in the eyes and giggled a bit. “I just touched your heart!” she exclaimed.
     “Yes, yes you did,” Benny replied.
     Hazel then ran back to her mother, grabbed her hand and they headed out the door. “Bye, Benny!” she cried over her shoulder as they entered the hallway.
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