This article originally appeared in Esquire and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author.
SOMETIMES BENNY hides things from himself. He doesn't know why. Just to do it, that's why. Just to keep himself sharp. Like he'll slip a cigarette on top of the door frame or in the back of a dresser drawer, and then later, when the jones hits, he'll have to strain his head to remember where he put it. He'll stand there in his living room, furrowing his brow in that slow way of his, pursing his lips and squinting his eyes. That's how he looks when he's trying to remember. Benny is all faces and hands. When he's happy, he'll look at you sideways and half smile as if he's suspicious but likes what he sees. When he's bored, he'll blink a hundred times in a row and let his mouth drag open, loose and slack, dehydrating there while he waits for you to say something interesting. But the best face is when he looks at his watch and his eyes get unevenly wild.
See, the watch is another thing Benny does weird. It's never set for the right time. Never even close. In fact, to get the right time from Benny's watch, you have to do complex arithmetic in your head. Like right now, he's in Memphis, sitting in a coffee shop. His watch says 3:04, but it's forty-five minutes fast, so it's really 2:19, except that's L.A. time, so here in Memphis it's 4:19. See? Benny squinches up his face while he does the math, then he rolls his head around on his neck and turns in his seat to stare out the window at Main Street. He's got a little blue cup of espresso in front of him, about as big as one of his eyeballs, and he holds it between his thumb and forefinger like it's something precious and fragile while he gazes across the long brick sidewalk at the total lack of people. Memphis by day is empty and old. Reminds him of Havana.
Havana. Benny travels too much. Did he mention that yet? It's one of those things you ought to know about him. It's one of the things you do when you're rich and famous and overloaded with curiosity. And when you travel too much, the sights begin to blur and the places begin to meld together until eventually only the most extravagant locations linger, sticking to your memory like taffy. And, well, Havana sticks. Benny's only been there twice, but he thinks of it maybe twice daily. He's thinking of it now, looking out the window, trying to figure out what it is about Memphis that reminds him of the ancient city. "Something about the atmosphere," he says. "There's more than you can see on the surface."
And then he stops. That's it. That's Benny for you. Just the type of cryptic shit he'll throw out there and leave dangling while you sit across the table waiting for the rest of it, the next part of the idea, the natural extension of it, or at least the context in which he thought of it, but no. No, he's done with that now, and he's moved on to something else. And where was he again? He's pulling at his doughy face, tugging on his jaw. Oh, right: Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash reminds him of Havana, too.
This is the natural trajectory of Benny's mind. It is the flight path of a butterfly. He will leap from the weather in Oregon to an analysis of his role in his next movie, The Hunted, to a discussion of Hunter Thompson's years in Puerto Rico, but inside the convoluted orgy of his mind, there will be some delicate synthesis between the ideas. There will be, at least to him, an obvious parallel between the three elements, some commonality he can sense but not quite place. They are somehow parts of a whole. And do you know what he means by that? He's asking you now. Do you know? Have you ever noticed that? Have you even heard the new Johnny Cash album? Benny is into questions. His questions are, at times, the only way to decipher the direction of his vagrant mind. He's fiddling with the ring on his middle finger, the silver one that's shaped like a skull, twisting it in directions that look like they'd hurt, glaring out the window, trying to unveil a metaphor to explain the ambience of music while sitting in a deserted coffee shop on a desolate Main Street in the Deep South, until suddenly a light comes flashing across his face and he jumps up, saying, "Come on out to my Cadillac. We can blast some Cash and you'll see what I mean."
Outside, the big black Escalade is parked by the curb. Benny climbs into the passenger seat, resting his big left ankle on his big right knee and punching a few buttons on the CD player with his big fingers until the music starts up. He slaps his knee to the rhythm, gently rocking from side to side, grinning and calling out the few lyrics he can recall in a muffled and vaguely accented baritone that's just slightly off pitch.
"Early one morning, with time to kill, I borrowed Jeb's rifle and sat on the hill. I saw a lone rider crossing the plain. I drew a bead on him to practice my aim. . . ." And Benny is not just speaking the words, and Benny is not just singing them; he is hearing them and letting them in, drifting and floating and thinking and being, while the sun outside falls and Memphis groans to life.
BEALE STREET IN DARKNESS smells like alligator and barbecue sauce. It sounds like the bottom of a lake. Guitar licks come roaring out of neon blues clubs, tearing down the street and mingling in the air. There's nothing you need to know or do here; there's only how you ought to feel, and if you need to be told that, then you'd better get someplace else right now.
Benny, he doesn't need to be told. He knows. He's out of the car now, bopping his head and doing his trademark saunter down the sidewalk, looking about as pimp as usual with his red Puma sweatpants tucked into his black moon boots, with his blue zippered sweatshirt under a brown leather bomber jacket that's got a banging fur collar, and his big mop of gray hair is smushed under a tall, ugly green trucker hat that he swears is hip in L.A.
The call comes from behind, and he spins to face a tiny slip of a woman emerging from the entrance of a nightclub in a shimmering sky-blue nightgown, eyeing him carefully.
"Benicio," she says again. "Come on in for a dance."
"Hey, doll," he says loosely, consuming her with his eyes. "Maybe later. I'm walking."
She nods, and Benny turns and resumes bopping his way down the street, working his neck like an oil pump, checking it all out. He doesn't mind a little attention as he goes, especially from chicks like that. Ten years ago, it was his dream. Back then, he was just another twenty-five-year-old kid from Puerto Rico trying to make it in L.-A., taking what roles he could, appearing in commercials, a Madonna video, a Pee-Wee Herman movie, and a forgettable TV miniseries, just hoping to get noticed. So it's nice, in a way, to get some love. He only minds when it gets weird. "And it does get weird," he says. "It's contagious. It'll trap you in a minute."
He means it: Being recognized is an illness. Once it starts, it spreads and metastasizes. He'll be out walking around, minding his own, with nobody coming up or taking a second notice of him, but then all of a sudden, from nowhere, somebody will lock on his eyes, and he'll see the glimmer, and then that's it. At first it's maybe just one dude being friendly, coming over to shake his hand, but then somebody else will overhear the conversation, or maybe just catch a hint of the first guy's body language, the way he's standing there talking to Benny, leaning in submissively, and something about that posture will make the second guy take a closer look, and then he'll realize it's Benny and he'll figure, well, if people are going over and saying hi, he might as well go, too, so then the second guy comes over and pretty soon you get a third guy who sees the two of them and thinks it's a gabfest, so he'll prance over, shouting "Benicio!" like they're old friends, and before you know it, there's a crowd bulging at Benny's boundaries and that's when it starts to go bad. That's when, without fail, somebody will step too far and Benny will get a twitch in his expression and find himself wanting to hurl motherfuckers out of his way, trucking toward the door with his big gray hair streaming behind him.
Mostly, though, he tries to keep it steady. Right now, it's still all good. He's stopped at the edge of an alleyway, checking out a band that's wailing an acid version of "Little Wing," and there's not a friendly face in sight, which is great. Benny's just banging his head up and down, wobbling his neck every which way, going, "Great, great, great."
At the end of the song, he wipes his face. "Great, great," he says again. "That made me hungry." The small crowd is dispersing, and Benny frowns, cocking his head to the side. "You hungry?"
THE BRICK TUNNEL LEADS to a courtyard, and the heat lamps beside the glass tables glow orange, and nobody here is ugly, and nobody here is underdressed (except perhaps Benny, in those hot red sweatpants), and the waitresses are young and taut with pulled-back hair and voluptuous green shirts, staring at Benny as he comes onto the patio. The Brando in him is gleaming tonight, and don't he know it, boy?
The Brando in Benny is strong. How many times has he been compared to Brando? A lot. Of course, every actor worth a damn gets compared to Brando these days. These days, everybody is either the next Brando or the female Brando or the Latin Brando or the anti-Brando, and like most things that get said often, it doesn't mean much. But there might be a grain of truth when it's said about Benny. Not because of the acting; just because of the feel. Because of the mumble and the slouch, the easy, almost androgynous sensuality, and the stare he draws from men and women alike. Not many human beings can claim the Brando allure, but Benny probably can. It's always been that way, too. He actually got more pussy before he was famous than he does now--"Not as many crazies to deal with," he says--but that's another story. The point is that Benny is one loose motherfucker. Loose in the same way that Brando was loose. Loose. He even says the word with a verbal slouch, an easy confidence, like he's said it to himself a thousand times before--which, actually, he has. It's a credo of sorts. Loose like Brando.
Anyway, there's a waitress hovering over him while he sits at the table fingering his box of Marlboro Lights and pulling a long cigarette holder from his pocket. The cigarette holder was a gift from Hunter Thompson after the filming of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson didn't like Benny at first. The first time they met, he pointed at Benny and shouted, "Fuck, no! Look at this idiot! He can't play Oscar! He's too fucking boring!" But that was before Thompson understood Benny. That was before Benny and Thompson started hanging out. That was before Benny told Thompson that if he ever pulled any shit like that again, he'd deck him. Now Benny has Thompson's cigarette holder and Thompson is nice about it. Benny puts the holder between his teeth, glances at the waitress, lights his smoke. "Irish coffee," he mumbles. "Thanks, doll."
The waitress doesn't move. "Irish coffee?" she says, confused.
Benny's eyes wander sluggishly from the cigarette back to the waitress, and they play over her for a while. "That's right," he says. "Irish coffee." He waves his hand gently. "Coffee and whiskey."
"Okay," she says, still not moving. "Is that pretty good?"
Benny knows this game. He smiles. "The best," he says, lifting his chin. "The best, the best." He winks. "Thanks, doll."
When she leaves, Benny flips open the menu. Alligator nuggets. Yeah, he'll need some of those. And some chips with chili. Fuck, yeah. Yeah. And another Irish coffee. You can't really have too much coffee. In Benny's world, it is water.
A few minutes later, he's nipping at a third drink, meandering through some kind of spontaneous soliloquy about how it takes him forever to read serious books but goddamn if Dostoyevsky isn't the man, and wait, maybe that shouldn't be in the story because he doesn't want to sound like another phony actor talking about Russian novelists, but the truth is: He loves that shit. It's such rich writing, and what he means by "rich writing" is--
"Sir, I'm really embarrassed about this . . ." A homeless man in a raggedy flannel shirt has approached the table. "Uh, I hate to ask for money, but I'm hungry. I need help."
Benny doesn't hesitate. He jams short on the soliloquy and yanks his busted old brown leather wallet from his pocket, fumbling around until he finds a twenty, which he hands over, saying, "Yeah, okay, man. No problem. That's from both of us." The homeless guy grabs it and books away from the table and back out onto the street before Benny has a chance to realize it was a twenty--except Benny knew all along, and he's sitting there looking after the guy with his most confused look of all, the one where his eyes get unevenly wild. "Huh," he says finally. "That guy wasn't kidding. He must have actually been hungry! Maybe I should have asked him to sit with us."
And then he's fiddling with the chips, poking them into the chili, saying, "But watch. That's just the beginning. Remember how before I said it's contagious when you get recognized? Well, this is a good example. That guy was just a coincidence. But watch. Somebody else in here looked over while he was talking to us, and now it's going to start for real."
He's barely finished the sentence when two guys in chinos and oxfords come over to the table saying, "Benicio. What's up, man?" The taller guy says, "Can I shake your hand?" so Benny gives him a crisp handshake, withdrawing quickly, but the guy leans in, his face all red and swollen from drinking. "Man, I loved you in Traffic," he says. "But your best role was in The Usual Suspects."
The shorter guy jumps in. "My homosexual friend here thinks Traffic is what you run into on U. S. 55. He wouldn't know who Kaiser Soze is."
So the taller guy stands up straight, drunk and irritated, and takes a few steps back, leaving room for the shorter guy to lean in, cornering Benny at the table. "Serious," the guy says, looking at his friend. "He's gay." He's searching Benny's face for a response, but Benny is a symphony of blankness. He's got a cold, hollow stare that says he's letting this shit slide, but he's about thirty seconds from gone, a nuance utterly lost on the short dude, who's leaning in further and further, trying to ingratiate himself, saying, "So, yeah, man, don't pay any attention to my gay friend, but you really held your own against Michael Douglas. That was awesome. Let me buy you a drink."
Benny's expression doesn't change a whit. "No," he says. "I'm just about to leave, thanks."
The guy only moves in further. He's got his hand on the back of an empty chair, and he's almost at a 45 degree angle, leaning in. "Come on," he whispers. "Let me buy you a drink."
And that's enough for Benny. He reaches for his smokes and starts to stand, unfolding himself from the chair like two hundred pounds of soft lead.
"Oh, okay, man," says the guy, stepping back. "But it's still early! You should come back. "
And Benny says, "I'm gone," leaving the short guy on the patio alone, scratching his head and mumbling something about heroes.
Back on the street, he's just starting to ease back into his saunter when he hears a "Hey, hey! Wait a minute!" behind him, and now there's a restaurant employee ducking his head around the corner, saying, "Hang on. I want you to meet this girl."
Benny pauses. This is ridiculous. But . . . "What girl?" he says.
"She works here. She was in the back room saying she'd do things for you. . . . I'm trying to remember exactly what she said. Oh, she said she was gonna do 'nasty things that are illegal in all fifty states.' "
Benny gets the suspicious sideways smile. "Really?" he says. "How old is she?"
"She's of age."
Benny thinks for a minute. "Okay," he says. "I'll wait here."
So the guy disappears behind the door, but a second later, another staffer comes out with a slew of shiny beaded necklaces around his neck. "Oh, man," he says. "They said you were out here. Man, I love your work. You're a good actor."
Benny: "Thanks. Thanks a lot. That's cool."
Encouraged, the guy steps closer, holding out the beaded necklaces for Benny to see. "We give these to all the girls who come in here. You should've seen these two that just came in a minute ago. They were hot! One of them come right up and showed me her tits, so I gave her a necklace to let her in, but then the other one was like, 'I'll show you my ass if you'll give me more necklaces than that.' I was like, 'Yeah, okay,' and man, she turned around and pulled her pants halfway down her ass! Man, I could see her whole crack! Everything! I gave her a whole handful of necklaces."
Benicio: "You serious?"
"Serious. Serious. And then after I gave the necklaces to that one, the other one was like, 'I want more necklaces than that. I'll show you my whole ass!' And she turned around and just pulled her pants all the way down and bent over, man. I could see everything! I gave her like two handfuls of necklaces!"
Benny, shaking his head in disbelief: "That's crazy."
Then the other guy comes back out. "I can't find that girl," he says sheepishly.
Benny: "Oh, okay. Well, maybe we'll come back later."
"Yeah, come back later," says the guy with the necklaces. "We'll take good care of you."
"I bet," says Benny, sauntering off, forgetting the episode as fast as it happened, forgetting it like so many forgettable things he's forgotten. When you travel too much and you leave yourself open, things begin to blur together, and inevitably you stand apart. First, you stop looking like everyone else. Then, you stop thinking like everyone else. Soon, you stop doing like everyone else. Then one day your watch goes wrong and you decide to just let it be. You let it keep its own time, like you keep yours. You stumble through the cities and the naked girls, through the brick tunnels and the alligator nuggets, sipping Irish coffee and squinting your eyes to understand. Strangers approach. They call you Benicio or Brando or Benny--what the hell is the difference? All the best music is private. All the best secrets are kept. In the streetlights, Benny is bopping his head and wandering back toward his Cadillac. He'll go somewhere from here, but who knows where. His red sweatpants catch the orange light, and his green hat almost glows. Maybe it really is hip in L.A. The truth is he wouldn't know or care.