Benefactor by Greg Ames

This is how I broke into the art world. I was on the couch, eating a salami sandwich, when a famous actress, this invincible beauty, appeared on my TV screen. “For only nineteen-ninety-nine a month,” she said, “you too can adopt an impoverished artist. Help keep some struggling painter or sculptor in caffeine and tobacco products for a year. These artists truly need your help, friends. Just look at this poor fellow.”

A man in a Slayer T-shirt and denim shorts limped into the frame. His pitted, unshaved face was etched with years of suffering. His scraggly gray hair hung over his shoulders and back. The actress, a slender woman in her late twenties, held her ground with admirable dignity, ignoring what must have been a heady stench. She seemed to belong to a different species entirely. Her copper-colored hair was pinned up on her head, as if she had a dinner party to attend after taping this promo. Her face glowed with the absolute certainty that millions of strangers adored her. I sat forward on my couch, fascinated.

“This artist needs a sponsor like you. Help end the suffering, friends.” Still smiling, she turned and placed her regal white hand on the man’s shoulder. His hooded eyes barely concealed thousands of real and imagined betrayals. Clearly he was a dangerous and desperate man.

“Don’t!—Careful,” I said, sitting on the edge of the couch, leaning forward as if to help her. I loved her. I hated her. I couldn’t stop watching.

I caught myself hoping that the beast, the artist, would humiliate or attack her, something, so that she might feel his terrible pain. Her beauty was a mere accident of birth, but it gave her undeniable power over us all. She had done nothing to earn it, and yet I would have trekked alone across the Mojave Desert if she had asked me to do so. And if this pitiful artist had asked me for a few bucks on my own street corner, I would have walked by him without a word. That was the real madness, a true injustice, and it was my duty to rectify it.

“Can you find it in your heart to change this man’s luck?” she said, looking directly into the camera. “Please give now. Operators are standing by.”

Before I knew it, I had the phone in one hand and my credit card in the other. “I want an artist,” I said. “I want to adopt a filthy, disgusting, starving New York artist. It’s awful what’s happening to these poor souls. Awful! Who knew?”

The toll-free operator wasted no time in gathering the necessary data. “May I have your name, sir, and your credit card information, please?”

Two weeks later, the first biographical packet appeared in my mailbox. I learned that Gerry “The Balls” Husk, my artist, was a 47-year-old “up-and-comer” who was currently crashing on a buddy’s couch in Red Hook. Because he couldn’t afford to buy clay or plaster, resourceful Gerry made intricate sculptures out of food products stolen from Brooklyn supermarkets. His most accomplished piece to date was a lemon Bundt cake with cherry icing, a work he called Satan’s Hollow (Key Food, 2003).

The information I received was quite thorough. In the winter of 2005, Gerry stopped producing art altogether and fell into a suicidal depression. During that time he spray-painted the words “Eat My Death” on parked cars, brick walls, and railroad trestles. Then: silence. Gerry was blocked. He couldn’t produce. A crisis of conscience ensued. In January of 2006, though, he made a strong comeback with a one-man show in Williamsburg that garnered some critical attention. Gerry made a series of coffin-shaped Jell-O molds in which he suspended a McDonald’s french fry and a razor blade. He called it The Last Supper Sequence.

“Jell-O’s my strongest medium,” he told a student reporter from Stuyvesant High School, a junior fulfilling his journalism credit. The article ran on page three inThe Spectator and the renewed attention to his work fueled Gerry. He was back!

“I want to dry-hump the world,” he told anybody who’d listen.

But a Bundt cake? The Last Supper? I was awfully conflicted when I finished reading. It all seemed a little silly to me, borderline preposterous, and I thought of all the poseurs and creeps who strolled through Chelsea galleries nodding their heads, murmuring, “Evocative.” I’d been to a few openings and I felt I was above that game — the cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, the Prada dresses, the whole narcissistic element of that rarified world. But it’s different when you’re talking about your own artist. He belongs to you in certain ways. You make allowances, cut slack. After all, I did not have a degree in Art History. Maybe Gerry’s stuff was innovative, I decided. Who was I to question his vision? And who didn’t enjoy a Bundt cake when it came right down to it? They’re delicious. You can cut them so easily on account of that hole in the center. Each slice comes out perfect. Try cutting a frozen ice cream cake in the shape of a blue whale. You need a hacksaw to get the job done, not to mention the patience of a plaster saint. How did that work out for you, Mr. High-minded Art Critic? See what I’m saying? Think about it. I do. That’s art appreciation. I sit on my couch and I think about this stuff now.

Gerry’s unfortunate diet (according to my next InfoPak) consisted almost entirely of Count Chocula and Almond Joys. It pained me to read this. The malnutrition! I winced at the deprivation. To nail the point, the Adopt Art headquarters included a heartrending photograph of Gerry lunging through the streets of industrial Brooklyn, a hand-rolled smoke dangling from his lips. Dressed in a tattered flannel shirt and ripped jeans, his belly distended, the poor man looked sick, depraved, and in need of love, and a hot shower. My adopted artist appeared to be stifling a frothy burp. How could I just sit on my hands and do nothing while this man suffered? How could any of us?

The benefits of my monthly payment were immediately apparent. With my generous donation, I was informed, Gerry bought a pair of navy blue Dickies work pants, a thermal undershirt, and a bong. “Gerry is thriving, thanks to you,” the next letter informed me.

I was thrilled for him. And I was also proud of myself. After all, I was making a difference in another person’s life. No amount of money could equal that feeling. I told everybody at the office about my adopted artist. “His name is Gerry,” I said, beaming like a proud parent. I passed around a photo of Gerry with his adorable chin scruff, his mischievous middle finger extended. Carla Donofrio (Marketing) hugged me and Glen Richter (H.R.) patted my back. “Nice,” he said.

Hadn’t my parents challenged me to do something unselfish with my life? Hadn’t they beseeched me to grow up and start thinking about the future? I was thirty-two years old, after all. They often reminded me of this, spitting out the numbers thirty andtwo as if they were expletives. Well, what would they think of this? They’d have to admit that I was capable of great kindness and generosity.

Gerry “The Balls” Husk was like a son to me. I couldn’t wait to get another update on my adopted artist. I kept my co-workers apprised of Gerry’s growth. “He’s over a hundred pounds,” I said, beaming. “Three meals a day. Vegetables even. He’s completely off heroin, apparently. In fact, he just celebrated a ninety-day anniversary.”

“He’s getting so big!” Carla said.

“Time flies,” Glen told me over lunch. “Really, buddy. Enjoy it while you can.”

So true.

My parents, however, were not impressed. They left portentous messages on my voicemail, talking about their own mortality and the biological need for the human race to procreate, and they reminded me that my younger sister had two children already—“The most beautiful little grandchildren in the world!”—but nothing could bring me down. No guilt trips could derail me. I was a good person, a worthy person, making a difference in the art world. Gerry “The Balls” Husk would vindicate both of us, I believed. At one time, when I was quite a bit younger, I had thought of myself as something of an artist. I wrote little stories, sketches, that sort of thing. But I put aside all my foolish hopes and dreams, as most new benefactors do, and focused all my attention on Gerry.

My productivity at work improved. My mood and outlook on life brightened. Whenever I felt a little depressed, I just thought of my adopted artist skulking around Brooklyn, rooting around in trashcans and dumpsters, and I felt better. Amazing what adoption can do for one’s self-esteem! My computer’s screen saver was a close-up photograph of Gerry’s battered face, so that when anybody walked by my desk, they were forced to see my big boy.

On the first of every month the Adopt Art people tapped into my credit card. Occasionally I noticed some additional charges, six to ten bucks extra, but it was never enough to concern me. Everything was fine for a while. Gerry seemed to be enjoying his bong. His appetite continued to improve. He got a fresh tattoo on his neck. A spider.

“You look good,” Carla Donofrio said one day. We were alone in the conference room after a staff meeting. She appraised me from head to foot, nodding her head in approval. “Are you working out?”

Gathering my papers, I laughed and shook my head. “I wish! No time for that, Carla. Not these days.”

“Busy?” she said, smiling.

“You can’t even imagine,” I said, and rolled my eyes. “My work is never done.”

“Listen, I was wondering . . .” She touched my forearm with her fingertips. “Do you want to get a drink after work? Maybe tonight?”

I thought about it. Normally I would have jumped at her offer—Carla was attractive and friendly and I suspected she knew how to enjoy herself outside the office—but my selfish needs had to come second to my new responsibilities.

“You know what?” I said, after a feverish moment of rumination. “Let me get back to you on that, Carla. I’ve got a lot on my plate right now, what with Gerry and his art and all.”

“That’s fine. I understand,” she said. Before walking away, Carla gave me an enigmatic smile. “Well, you know where my desk is. Let me know if you change your mind.”

“Sure thing,” I said. “When things cool down over here, I’ll let you know. Have a good night.”

Something incredible was happening. Women noticed me. A pretty girl in a coffee shop gave me her phone number. “Call me,” she said. Her tongue was pierced. That was intriguing. But I had Gerry to think about. An older woman stared at me in the post office. She timed her departure so that we would walk out together. “I just want to say that you have a lovely smile,” she told me. Blushing, I said, “Well, I’m a benefactor.” She clapped her hands. “I should have known! That’s wonderful,” she said, and she hugged me. “Ciao, signora,” I said, hurrying back to my apartment’s mailbox.

That night on television I caught the same Adopt Art commercial again, and this time I understood—no, actually I felt that this copper-haired young woman, this famous actress toward whom I had once directed some vague enmity, had, of course, been an innocent child of God not long ago, riding a bicycle for the first time, smiling up at her parents over a shattered lamp, experiencing all the guilt and sorrow of a human life, and at that moment I saw the divinity in her orthodontic smile. I wished for her a rich life of peace and contentment, nothing less. My anger had been self-loathing, misdirected. I was chastened by this glimpse of my own pettiness. After all, I was very much like a parent now myself. The world demanded more of me, and frankly I demanded more of it.

For those who know what I’m talking about, no explanation is necessary. For those who don’t know, no explanation is possible.

Invigorated, I sat with the young mothers at the Third Street playground in Park Slope, holding a recent photo of Gerry “The Balls” Husk, ready to swap stories. They seemed uncertain about my presence, but when I shared how much I thought about Gerry, to the exclusion of everything else in the entire world, they accepted me as one of their own. I hung out at Tea Lounge on Union Street with the breast-baring crew and traded mirthful banter about sippy cups, organic snack foods, and the viscosity of feces. Around three o’clock we all disbanded for naptime. Since Gerry wasn’t around, I put myself down for an hour. Infants and Spaniards had it right: viva la siesta! Then my boss called and demanded to know why I wasn’t at work. Was I taking vacation days?, he wanted to know.

Unbelievable. After my nine loyal years at the agency, toiling away as a junior copywriter, never demanding a raise or a promotion, this was the thanks I got? Still, I kept my cool. Clearly he didn’t understand the art world or adoption. How could he possibly expect me to do everything at once? I was a single benefactor. The government certainly had no interest in helping me. And here was this oblivious man, probably with a wife and a nanny at home, giving me crap over nothing at all. It was a textbook case of phallocentric hegemony.

“I’ll be in tomorrow,” I told him, my tone chilly but professional. After all, he didn’t realize that his days were built on a foundation of pettiness and self-deceit.

“Wise choice,” he said. “That is, if you want to keep your job.”

“Watch it, Ace!” I said. “You’re cruising for a discrimination lawsuit.”

To spare my boss the embarrassment, I’d actually said that after he hung up.

But the next packet contained some information that I must admit disturbed me. My adopted artist, my boy Gerry, had been arrested. I couldn’t believe it. Not Gerry, I thought. I knew him too well for that. It must have been a mistake. I refused to believe it. After so much progress, too. After the new work pants and the brand new—Well, I assumed it had to be a case of mistaken identity. But the truth hurt.

In broad daylight Gerry had assaulted a Starbucks barista, a graduate student in Fordham’s Theology department. According to the enclosed police report, Gerry swung a bicycle chain at the man’s head after a dispute over the insufficient amount of caramel in his macchiato. Gerry fled the scene with a full bottle of caramel syrup in hand, but he was later apprehended, right next door, in a popular taqueria. Twenty-six eyewitnesses were willing to testify against him. Gerry ruined quite a few lunches that afternoon. The Theology student was unharmed and even finished his shift without incident, but later he claimed to have suffered a debilitating ontological wound that required weeks of bed rest. His family physician prevented him from working and studying until he felt better. His defense lawyer filed a lawsuit.

“Oh, Gerry,” I said, placing my hand over my heart. “Why, son?” Of course I blamed myself. I had been too distant. I hadn’t shown enough interest in his latest projects. I’d ignored his obvious cries for help. (The ugly pants, the bong.) My thoughts continued along this line for a while before I pulled myself together. One of us needed to be strong in this time of crisis. I would stand by him when nobody else would. Maybe this aloofness to each other’s needs could be chalked up to a simple communication problem, but in hindsight I believe our dysfunction went deeper than that. This arrest was exactly what we needed to bring us closer together.

That night I lay in bed and questioned my decision to adopt. Was this really my type of artist? I didn’t want any controversy. My reputation, I realized, was at stake in this. My adopted artist’s behavior reflected poorly on me. Tossing and turning, I wrestled all night with this intricate moral dilemma. I was repulsed by his behavior. I couldn’t in good faith stand behind him. His actions were not defensible. Gerry “The Balls” Husk had clearly violated the terms of our contract. This was not how people in my family behaved. It was time to cut the apron strings. He would have to stand on his own two feet. After hours of deliberation and another sleepless night, I chose to disown him.

So the following morning I called the Adopt Art headquarters in Cincinnati. “I’m not sure I really like my artist,” I explained. “He doesn’t fit my image of myself. Can’t you match me with somebody else, please? A nice, quiet landscape painter maybe? Or a water-colorist? Or maybe even an adorable senior citizen trying to make one last splash in the Crafts world before the inevitable darkness of death?”

“Impossible,” said the phone operator. She sounded almost angry with me. “You agreed to sponsor—wait, let me see here, yes, here it is—Gerald Husk for the minimum period of 18 years.”

“Eighteen years?” I said. “Are you shitting me? I thought it was only for a year, maybe two at the most.”

“Because you didn’t cancel at any time during the 28-day introductory period, you committed yourself to the full contract.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say. A minute passed in silence. She hung up. I called back. I was surprised to find that I had reached the same operator again.

“As you know, the Adopt-an-Artist program,” she continued, “is a tiered system designed to give your artist the education he or she deserved but probably didn’t receive. This, of course, includes overseas travel and study, funded graciously by you.”

I began to sweat. My mouth went dry. Moaning, I sat down on the couch.

“The contract is binding,” she said. “We have your credit card number, of course, so we’ll take care of everything. Your artist has shown an interest in France and Italy,” she said, reading his dossier. “And Bolivia.”

In a daze I hung up my phone and took to my bed.

In the following months I lost a considerable amount of weight. Once a week my mother called long distance from St. Louis to make me feel worse about myself. When she pressed me too hard about my uncertain future, I shouted, “The art world needs me! Do you understand that?” She handed the phone to my father, who berated me for raising my voice.

“Gerry and I will be just fine without your interference,” I told him. “Maybe I’m not raising him exactly as you would have done, Dad, but times have changed. The art world is very different now. Clement Greenberg is dead.”

My father sighed heavily through his Midwestern nostrils, which sounded like a tornado on my end of the phone in Brooklyn. “Help me to understand,” he said in a calm voice. “Tell me again, please, what this odd young man does for work.”

“He’s a gelatin sculptor, Dad. A wildly talented one. Nobody in the world makes a Jell-O sculpture quite like Gerry, what with all the razor blades and French fries he incorporates.”

“I see.” My father sighed again. A gust of wind strong enough to fell houses and power lines hit my ear. “And he calls himself Gerry the what?”

“OK, sure,” I said with a chuckle. “Gerry’s a little rough around the edges, I’ll grant you that, but he’s a good boy at heart. He deserves a second chance. We all deserve a second chance, Dad.”

Then I tossed my trump card on the table. “Jesus Christ got a second chance, didn’t he?”

My father fell silent.

“And look at J.C. now,” I said, filling the terrible silence with words. “He ascended to Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He’s seated at the Table of Righteousness.” That was a bold shot in the dark. “Enjoying the Fruits of Salvation.” That, too. “Would you deny anyone that?”

“Have a good night,” my father said. “You know your mother and I love you. I hope we’ve made that clear. Don’t do anything rash.”

A DVD arrived the next day. In my favorite scene, Gerry “The Balls” Husk sat cross-legged on the pavement outside the Museo Tecnico in Milan, where, according to my leather bound InfoJournal, prototypes of Leonardo’s inventions were displayed. For almost a full hour Gerry just sat there on the sidewalk, red-eyed and grinning, with a dumb look on his face. A little roll of fat hung over his belt. He had grown so doughy and plump.

I took the rest of the week off from work to catch up with my drinking. I was on a new schedule now, very demanding. I enjoyed my afternoon cocktails in the morning, my nighttime cocktails in the afternoon. Sometimes I sat cross-legged in front of the TV, sipping vodka tonics and watching my adopted artist. About an hour into the DVD, Gerry yawned and fell asleep on a park bench, one arm dangling to the pavement. A homeless man rummaged in his pockets. “Get away!” I said to the screen. “Shoo! Don’t touch him.”

But at some point you had to admit to yourself that you couldn’t protect your artist from the dangers of the world. He needed money and experience. I had given that to him. Now I was expected to get out of his way. I was expected to fade into the background, to pretend that Gerry had arrived fully formed in the world, without any help at all. But he never called or wrote, and I worried about his health. His teeth were a mess. Who knew the last time he went to the dentist? It was so hard to watch him struggle.

“He’s an artist,” the toll-free operator said. “Get over it. He’s supposed to struggle.”

In an attempt to appeal to her humanity, I softened my voice and said, “Can I at least send him clean socks and underwear?”

“No. Leave him alone now. Your adopted artist needs to feel all the joy and suffering our world has to offer. That’s his path. Nobody should deny him that experience. Not even you.”

Of course I agreed with this, in theory, but I still hoped to guide him in a safer direction than the one he had chosen for himself. I could already see the perilous road ahead of him. Nobody was buying Jell-O sculptures in today’s market. Maybe I could convince him to work in a different medium, something that might actually be profitable. Maybe he could try to mimic the success of that marvelous Thomas Kinkade, “America’s most collected living artist,” according to his website. That was a good idea. I made a note on a Post-It: “Be a Kinkade.” I would suggest that option to Gerry in a handwritten letter.

“I have a guest room in my apartment,” I told the phone operator. “Well, it’s meant to be a writing room, but I don’t write anymore. Not with Gerry in my life. Will you please pass that information on to him? If things get too rough out there, he can always come home. Let him know that, will you?”

After she hung up on me, I turned my attention back to the TV. Gerry woke up on that park bench in Italy. His assailant had disappeared. Soon Gerry came to realize that his pockets had been ransacked. Penniless and distraught, he shouted and stomped around for a while. Pedestrians stared.

Utterly alone in the world, Gerry turned his head left and right. His face was creased in anger. I knew who he was looking for, but there was nothing I could do for him.

“Best of luck to you, son,” I said, the gloomy words catching in my throat. I placed my hand on the screen for a moment, appreciating the static charge, before finally turning away.