8FOLD/ACRA/TEB: The Collected Speak!, Vol. # 1
milos_parker at yahoo.com
Thu Dec 29 11:30:50 PST 2005
EIGHTFOLD COMICS PRESENTS
THE COLLECTED SPEAK! Vol. 1
being a reposting of the
first four issues of SPEAK!,
with an introduction by Saxon Brenton
One of the cool things about the TEB format,
besides having a whole bunch of issues in one
easy-to-print file or post, is that you can fix
things: spelling and grammar errors, as well as things
you didn't do so well the first time.
Two things have always stuck out like sore thumbs
(which I guess works, since thumbs come in pairs): one
is the tonal shift in the third episode. I didn't
quite pull that off and short of adding yet another
story for Harry to tell, I didn't see anyway to fix
that. So that's still here in all of its poorly
The second is Sandy. In my original outline, she
played a much larger part in the story. In the series
as it exists, she's little more than the
long-suffering girlfriend. Which could be
interesting, but not in the way I did it. The phone
scenes are just too long, and so many of them have
been excised. This, I hope, makes the scenes
remaining that much stronger, for the sake of novelty
if nothing else. And it focuses the story more on the
relationship between Gregory and Harry, which is one
of the main focal points of the story anyway. The
other is addressed by the glorious Saxon Brenton in
Let's talk about dichotomies.
The superhero `capes-and-tights' genre is, of
course, dominated by the precept used so famously by
Stan Lee in the origin of Spider-Man: that "With great
power comes great responsibility." The inverse is the
considerably more highbrow but also more skeptical
warning given by Lord Action that "Power tends to
corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
This dichotomy is central to the more stylised
genre conventions of superhero comic books. But...
and this is the important part... it has very little
to do with real people and real life, which all too
often aren't black and white but rather are shades of
Contemplate this and then consider Gregory Dingham.
For no readily explained reason, Gregory gains the
power to cause things to happen just by saying so.
The first thing he does with it is to inadvertently
kill his mother. Bummer, huh? After he gets over the
shock and takes steps not to hurt anyone ever again,
he tries to think of what constructive things he could
do with his newfound powers. His options overwhelm
him, and he flees.
He doesn't need to. This is NOT a world governed
by Silver Age morality where it is practically
mandated (possibly by the Comics Code Authority) that
anyone who gains superhuman abilities must either
start dressing with his underwear on the outside and
altruistically fight for Good or else automatically
fall into corruption and Evil and look forward to a
career of plotting and scheming and cackling and
perpetually having his plans thwarted by costumed boy
scouts with capes and spitcurl hairdos. Nor is it
governed by Bronze Age morality where everyone dresses
up in angst and leather and the only way to tell who
the good guys are is that they are the ones who win
the fights. There are other ways that Gregory could
handle his situation. Perfectly humdrum ways
involving legitimate private enterprise. Smeg it,
there's even a super-powered plumber giving self-help
advice on the television, just to make the theme
explicit-- but does Gregory listen to this? Noooo...
And so Gregory flees. And because Gregory is
fleeing from his fears rather than giving into a baser
nature, he becomes a fascinatingly complex and
unpredictable character. At one time when I was doing
the monthly review summaries of _Speak!_, I called it
`transgressive'. Looking back on it, I don't see any
reason to re-evaluate that assessment.
Which brings us to the next dichotomy, which is
what Gregory creates within himself. Intelligent and
given to introspection, Gregory knows perfectly well
what is right and wrong, but in an almost bloody
minded effort to proclaim his freedom from the weight
of expectations that he imagines hangs over him, he
goes and does something completely different. He's
transgressing against his own nature, probably in an
attempt to excuse himself from the responsibility he
Or so I imagine. That bit about Gregory analysing
everything he does and then often going and doing
something different sometimes makes it hard to pin
down what his real motivations are. Read the stories
yourself, and see what conclusions you come up with.
GREGORY DINGHAM AWOKE TO THE sound of his own voice,
filtered through a raspy machine. "Hey. After the
beep, your job is to leave your name, your number, and
a brief message. My job is to entertain you with some
amusing preamble before we get to that beep. But,
just because I failed at my task, doesn't mean you
have to fail at yours." The machine beeped.
"Gregory, this is your mother. Pick up."
"I'm trying to sleep."
"It's eleven o'clock. Are you asleep?"
"You should be up by eleven."
"I'm trying to sleep!"
"I need you to call me when you get this."
"Die. I'm trying to sleep."
A very quiet, very guttural sound spewed out from
the machine. This got Gregory sitting up. He leaned
forward and listened carefully. There was another
sound, shorter and quieter than the last, and then
silence, interrupted only by the occasional pops and
fizzes of his phone's bad connection. The receiver
clicked, and three grating electronic hums heralded
the arrival of the robotic woman: if you'd like to
make a call, please hang up and try again.
Gregory grabbed the phone and was about to dial,
when some strange impulse told him to listen to the
message. He pushed the play button.
"I need you to call me when you get this." It was
followed by that guttural noise.
Gregory tried to zero-in on the rest of the
recording, listening for any clues embedded in those
seconds between the first sound and its sequel. But
the world would not cooperate; the aural environment
was no longer so quiet, calm, and accommodating. Wind
shuffled foliage, tires got stuck in the snow, and
children (yes, presumptuous, accursed, self-absorbed
children, the audacity of the creatures) were
playing/screaming/shouting/singing the very same songs
Gregory used to sing on his way to school ("on top of
spaghetti all covered with cheese", "glory-glory,
hallelujah, my teacher hit me with a ruler" and
"bloody Mary, bloody Mary: I've killed your son"). He
missed the second noise completely and was jarred from
the clash of schoolyard doggerel and natural sound by
the three hums and their robotic queen.
Gregory dialed and his father picked up the phone;
his father never picked up the phone.
GREGORY TRIED TO DESCRIBE HIS mother's funeral to
Sandy, who had opted not to go, but to his dismay his
usual eruditeness was lost in a jumble of words and
images, a sinuous, sensual sentence without sequence
or sequitor; no matter how hard he tried to put the
things in order (beginning, middle, end, with minimal
asides) he found himself as lost as his father looked,
Dingham Senior's old drunk eyes staring out towards
the front of the church but not at any one thing in
particular: not at the coffin or the body, or at the
priest, or Jesus Christ Himself, nails in his hands
and blood in his palms with a smile on his face, a
smile as ghastly and serene as that of the corpse, who
was not his mother but a reasonable facsimile,
heavier, her nose scrunched up and her face smothered
with too much make-up (but not as much as she usually
wore, he noted, with the caustic sort of humour that
had been his stock in trade since he was a young boy,
a young boy who did not at that time hate his mama but
only wished to be acknowledged by her, a dream he gave
up like a hundred others, like his father gave up his
own dream, whatever it was, so he could work the
machines that cost him his hand; how alike his father
and the father were, for Father McCormick's hands had
long ago been withered with arthritis, and his eye
sockets heavy with alcohol, and his voice
damning-and-dooming, ejaculating with anger and
ideas); how relieved Gregory was when they closed the
coffin tight, so that the face of this doppelganger,
this Xerox that could not be his mother, could not cry
out any longer for vengeance: and Sandy said, it's not
your fault, and he lost himself in her hair and her
thighs and her heaving, heavy breasts, and they made
love, rocking, rocking, gently melting into one
another until all these jagged, jumbled fragments of
memory were forgotten in the pink of her nipples and
Gregory felt his testicles tighten, and he knew he
would be coming soon, and she would tell him that it
was okay (maybe I'll come next time, but she never
did), but it wasn't okay, and he knew it, and he
wished that this time she would come, and he said as
much. "Come." And she did.
She cried out and he cried out and both of them
came, but there was no peace, no sense of
accomplishment: just an eerie silence. And in the
back of his brain, the robot woman told him to hang up
and try again.
HE STARTED HIS CAR AND let it run a few minutes.
Then, he said: "Engine, stop."
The engine stopped. He started his car again, let
it run, told it to stop, and it did just that; he did
it again and again: lather, rinse, repeat. He started
his car again and drove around the block a couple
times. It ran just fine.
"Let's do it one more time, just to be sure.
First, let's start you up again." And, to his
amazement, the key turned all by itself and the engine
roared to life.
GREGORY WAS, HOWEVER, QUITE UNSUCCESSFUL in his
attempts to make dishes levitate; instead, they
crashed defiantly to the floor. After the fifth
broken plate, he got the feeling that the other dishes
in the cupboard were mocking him. "Why don't you all
just break, too?"
And they did, cracking with a noise as quiet and
subtle that it was barely there at all, just like his
mother's death rattle after her heart stopped beating.
Gregory told the fridge to open (it did); to close
(it did); for the light to turn on and off (and it did
just that). He told the carrots to rot and they
rotted right before his eyes (shades of black and
green bubbling up from underneath orange flesh). But
the fridge (and vegetation) was obstinate: it would
not levitate, do the watusi, or burst into flames.
But now we're getting somewhere. This obviously
isn't a fluke, but something that he was doing, a gift
he had been given. He was starting to figure out its
limits, what he could do and what he couldn't. A
strange impulse seized him (the same that had prompted
these experiments in the first place, and the same
that made him listen to the answering machine message
before dialing his mother), and he looked to the pile
of broken dishes on the floor.
"Put yourselves back together again."
They did no such thing.
No, you can only apply this power to natural laws:
no levitation, no resurrection, no fireballs dropping
from the sky. But what about the movement of car keys
and the opening of fridge? Or the simultaneous
cracking of a cupboard full of plates? If these mild
forms of telekinesis are within your grasp, why not
But we haven't failed here, we've succeeded: the
fruits of this labor is knowledge. We're learning and
broken plates are a small price to pay for that.
He was pretty sure, though, that Sandy would not
share that opinion. This much was confirmed when she
walked into the apartment and looked at the mass of
"So. Greg. What's going on here?"
"You mean the plates."
"Yes. I mean the plates. The very expensive,
irreplaceable plates my mother left me before she
died. The ones that had been her mother's plates.
Yes, I mean the plates."
"Uh. I broke them."
"Okay..." Oh-oh. She's crossing her arms and
tapping her foot. Not good, man. Not good.
"Um. I'm really sorry?" Ooh. Should not have
included that question mark at the end, Greg.
Sandy turned abruptly and started walking towards
the bathroom: the moping room. And she would sit with
her back to the door, and Gregory would spend an hour
pleading for her to let him in and apologizing. And
he'd get in and she'd still be pissed, and moping.
And the whole evening would be ruined and then
forgotten tomorrow morning.
"Sandy! Sandy, you will forgive me right now."
"Oh, I will, will I?"
"Yes. You will forgive me right now." Oh, no,
Gregory: don't push it man. "And you will give me the
best blow job of my life."
"Fuck you." Well, that takes mind control off the
GREGORY SAT IN THE BATHROOM and held a plate in his
hands. He had bought Sandy a new set. They were
better plates, more expensive than her mother's, but
the other ones did have the whole
value thing going for them and you can't really do
much to replace that. The act of giving her the
plates reminded her of the broken ones, and of her
anger. But if he hadn't given her the plates, she
still would have been pissed. You can't win
At any rate, Gregory sat in the bathroom with one
of her new plates, and whispered to himself. "My
power will never be used to break a plate again."
He took in a deep breath and said, "This plate will
break." It did not break. The test was a success.
Now for the real thing.
"This power will never be used to kill another
human being again." His mother's death wasn't really
his fault. It was an accident. But if it was to
happen again, even as just a slip of the tongue, in a
heated moment of anger, there would be no excuse.
This was the only way to make sure some schmuck didn't
die every time Gregory got cut off on the expressway.
He said it again, to be sure that it took: "This power
will never be used to kill another human being again."
He walked into the bedroom. Sandy was lying naked
on her belly, one leg bent at the knee and the foot
pointing idly at the ceiling as she doodled. "Hey.
"I AM NOT A HERO."
The fat man bounced across the stage on the balls
of his feet, giving the audience time to ponder the
enormity of his statement. "And I sure as hell ain't
no pornographic movie star."
He smiled, encouraging the audience to guffaw (they
did). "I'm a regular guy. I don't have a fancy
costume: just these baggy gray pants, this jacket,
this hat. The only emblem I wear is my name here in
cursive: Joe Racine, plumber. And that's what I am,
just a plumber, an everyday Joe with a lovely wife and
a second mortgage. So why am I here? Why are you
here? Why is this university paying me more than I
make in a month of honest work to spend an hour
yapping at you?"
Racine grabbed a bottle of water from a table on
the stage, opened it, and tossed the water out towards
the audience. Oohs and ahs flung to the stage like
tribute to a gladiator, the stream of water suspended
in the air before them, now as hard as ice. Even
Gregory Dingham oohed and ahed.
"I have a gift. And when I discovered this power,
I had a choice. And each of you has that choice as
well. Now, not all of you have super-human powers.
But every single one of you does have a gift, a
talent, an area in which you excel, in which you are
blessed. And how you use that blessing, that's a
choice that you have to decide."
A bit redundant, but what do you expect from a
plumber, Gregory? Eloquence?
"Most people with powers, they think they only have
two choices. They either become part of the tights
and capes crowd, and I mean them no disrespect: I
mean, without them, I would have probably been dead or
enslaved by aliens ten different times over, along
with the rest of you. Let's hear it for the heroes.
"The other choice is to become a super-porno star.
I'm not going to knock them either. Heck, before
Trudy came into my life (love you babe), I owed some
of the best seconds of my life to 'em. But you can
see why most people choose option number one. Well,
I'm here to tell you that there's another option;
there are always other options.
"My option? My choice? After a lot of thought, as
you can see, I decided to become a plumber. I think
that's the best way I can use my gift. Now, some of
you are saying, with the power that Joe has, why
doesn't he make it rain during a drought, feed
starving children? Well, I say to you, why aren't you
doing that? You have just as much capacity for good.
Join the peace corps, maybe. I'm content in knowing
I'm doing the best with my abilities to the best of my
To emphasize this, he wrote "I'm doing the best
with my abilities to the best of my abilities" on the
AFTER THE JOE RACINE SEMINAR, Gregory headed towards
the flower shop to buy a bouquet for Sandy. When the
last test of his power had proven to be successful, he
explained to her the nature of his gift.
"What if I had died?" she said.
"Well, I knew you weren't going to."
But she wouldn't listen; kept saying something
about veiled hostility and passive aggression.
THINGS HAD PATCHED UP, THOUGH.
Sandy would often call Gregory at work and ask him
to "Say it. Say it, please."
She would come, thank him, and give him two phone
kisses before hanging up.
Gregory felt positively virile.
THE QUESTION REMAINED.
"So, what are you going to do with your power?"
Sandy had asked that question again and again over
the last few days, often coming up with ideas that,
while practical, just weren't the right thing. She
would get exasperated. "What is the right thing for
The point of going to the Racine seminar had been
to figure that out. Gregory went in a skeptic and
came out with his fashionable snigger intact; he would
not squander his gift like some working class stiff.
Ever since he was a kid, he knew that that just wasn't
the life for him.
"Well, what is the life for you?" his father would
ask. "Are you going to be some faggot actor living
off of welfare because you're too good to work?"
He never had an answer.
"WHY NOT BE A HERO?" Sandy would chime.
"It's not that I'm against altruism," he explained.
"But it's not logical. My power is cerebral, it's
logical, it's words, just the power of words,
thoughts. It would be different if I had some kind of
mind control. But I don't. So in any situation where
it's me and some alien or nutjob, I'm useless in a
fight. I have no real offensive capabilities."
"Then what are you going to do?"
GREGORY SAW SMOKE AND ORANGE rising around the next
corner of the block, and ran towards it. Within
seconds his head was light from the heavy breathing
and an aerobic jog, and he found himself turning the
corner as a young man came barging out from the smoke,
cradling a child in his arms.
He wasn't a muscular guy, and he didn't get further
than a few steps before he collapsed, the little girl
tumbling into the grass. She did not stir. The young
man crawled towards her, coughing, and flipped her
over onto her back. He wiped the bangs from her
sweating forehead and began giving her CPR.
Gregory stood still, unable to move, unable to do
anything as simple as dial nine one-one on his cell
phone. He just watched, staring as if transfixed by
something of beauty. Pump, pump, huff, huff; pump,
pump, huff, huff: and now tears streamed down the
young man's eyes as he begged the little girl (his
sister? his daughter?) to live: don't leave us now
don't leave us now don't leave us now, please don't
leave us! But she would not open her lungs.
Gregory whispered a single word with a mixture of
confidence and preemptive awe. "Breathe."
She coughed, spat up, breathed, and the man scooped
her up in his arms and cried as Gregory stepped back
from the scene.
GREGORY DINGHAM DREAMED THAT NIGHT: he was a doctor
(of sorts) working in a hospital, or rather a long
corridor filled with doors, and each door led to
another hospital, or a ghetto street, or a war zone.
Voices called him, begged him to go through that door
and this one, and each door he went through, there was
a dying man or woman, and Gregory would whisper to
them, breathe, or stop bleeding, or your heart will
beat, or simply: live, and they would live. And now
he wasn't a doctor, but a saint, swept from one room
to the next, the master of the corridor. And he was
not overwhelmed; time seemed to slow down, like he was
Santa Claus giving the most precious gift of all to
all the good little boys and good little girls. There
was no rush. He was in control.
GREGORY WOKE UP SWEATING, TWISTING and turning in the
bed, wrapping himself up in the sheets like a
caterpillar in a cocoon, insular and frightening. He
would be no butterfly. "I am not a god. I will not
choose who lives and who dies. Fuck altruism. I am
not a god."
GREGORY WALKED INTO THE BANK.
"I want to make a withdrawal." He handed the slip
to the teller. She took it from him with her acrylic
fingernails and smacked her gum.
"You forgot the account number."
He smiled. "I'm robbing the bank."
NINE HUNDRED NINETY-EIGHT, NINE HUNDRED ninety-nine
and fifty, seventy-five, eighty-five, eighty-six
cents. Not bad for a day's work, ten minute's work,
not bad. This was easy, this was Candyland, this was
checkers, this was Seuss. Now comes the hard part:
"OH, HONEY. I'VE EMBARKED UPON a life of crime."
No. Buzz! Wrong.
"SANDY, WOULD YOU TAKE A look in that drawer?"
"There's money here!"
"How much is here?"
"Nine-hundred ninety-nine dollars and eighty-six
"Where'd you get it?"
"Wow. Your bonds matured pretty fast."
Oh, no, Greg. Give her more credit than that, man!
The minute you said, the bank, she would turn around
and say, you robbed the bank! And you would have to
nod, and she would ask you why.
YOU COULD LEAVE A NOTE:
Sandy: Robbed the bank, started life of crime.
Don't really want to talk about it. Maybe another
time. Some Mac-and-cheese in the fridge. Love,
GOD, YOU'RE SO NERVOUS: SWEATING. It can't be that
difficult to tell her, can it? Of course, you
probably should have told her before you went and
robbed the bank. At the very least, she would have
told you to wear a mask.
But maybe you were hoping you wouldn't go through
with it. That some miraculous sign from God would
tell you to stop or prevent you from doing it. Hate
to tell you, bud, but the simple fact of the matter is
that if you're pushing the onus on God, you're
shirking responsibility for the thing that you did.
Oh, that touched a nerve. That's a big issue for
you, isn't it? Responsibility. To be responsible for
your actions, to be held accountable for them. Or is
this just some bullshit posturing? If you were going
to be responsible, you would return the cash and turn
yourself in. But you're not going to do that, are
Of course not.
WHAT IF YOU JUST LEFT?
I mean, robbing the bank was pretty stupid and
you're supposed to be a smart guy. How long before
the police figure out who you are and come after you?
You leave town, go far away, you have no danger of
being caught. And, and, and.
You don't have to deal with Sandy.
DON'T THINK OF IT AS running away.
Think of it as a smarter move, as staying one step
ahead of the law. You've got 995.86 in cash in your
pocket. That will take you wherever you need to go.
This is America, buddy: the road is open and spacious
and the plains and mountains just roll on by, lulling
you to sleep. The romantic lullaby of the American
muse, much invoked but seldom caught, as illusive as
God-Jesus-Christ-Love, you can feel it there and you
know what it is, but you can't touch it, define it, or
make it your own. All description and metaphor are
inadequate. That's America, friend.
Roll down the window. You feel the wind in your
hair. Does it make you feel any different, like
you're free? I don't see why it should: you're still
in a tin box. Roll the window back up, idiot: it's
cold. You want to freeze?
Wind-in-hair is nonsense.
TURN ON THE RADIO INSTEAD.
Listen to one annoying pop song after another,
guided by a frustrated, homely-hammy actor (he'll
never get a movie deal or even a teevee series, but
he's content with his lot, just like your father was,
just happy to be alive, but you can't be happy with
that, you need more, you need to be difficult, don't
you?), a local celebrity, this disc jockey, this
master of frequency ninety-six point three for miles,
for as far as his eye can see. But once you venture
past his grasp, you hear it start to fade, and
crackle, and his power weakens: as you leave his
domain static fills the car, but don't you dare turn
it off, Gregory. Listen to it, relish the emptiness;
listen to it.
Soon you'll be in another town, another state, and
another homely-hammy actor-king will claim ninety-six
point three for his own and this FM messiah will damn
you to hell with his American idols (golden calves
emerging with plastic breasts from the Wall of Sound)
until another jockey claims ninety-six point three,
and another, and another, and that's America, Greg,
that's America: that's freedom, so much sadder and
truer than wind-in-hair or travels-with-Charlie will
SO, DOES IT FEEL REAL?
You're in Ohio now. And Kentucky: does it feel
People don't just up and leave, and certainly not
you, not careful, thoughtful Gregory Dingham. But
here you are. In your car. Driving. Driving. Gas
is running low. When the tank is empty, that will be
real. When you get lost, that will be real. And then
what will you do? When you crack, that will be real.
When you call Sandy up, crawl back to her or beg
for her to come get you, when you pussy out, that will
be real, far more believable than "he just up and
went". Go on and call her, Greg: it isn't the first
time you've thought of it. Each and every modest
mile-marker reminds you of how far you've gone: isn't
it time to stop this nonsense, to find a phone or to
just turn back and drive back home?
But every mile-marker you pass, you say (out-loud
or deep-down, but both are lies, really): too far to
turn back now. Crossed the Rubicon.
But you haven't and you know it. There's always an
out, you can always turn back. There is no such thing
as a point of no return. But the farther you travel,
and the more time elapses, the more shit you're going
to have to face when you do go back home.
PRETTY REDHEAD GIRL, FRECKLES, NINETEEN.
"May I help you, sir?"
It's a shock at first, her accent, and then you
realize, I'm in Kentucky. I'm actually here, and
people actually speak like this. This isn't a dream,
When you order your artery-choker with fries in
your bland Midwest lack-of-accent, you half-expect her
to say, you're not from around here, are you? But she
knows that, she knew that before you even got in line:
restaurants just off of the freeway don't have any
repeat customers. Everyone is from out of town, and
everyone is in a hurry. She's probably gotten so used
to the many different accents that she comes across on
a daily basis that she's desensitized to it; she's
even desensitized to your reaction to her accent. And
even if all this wasn't true, she still wouldn't say a
word to you other than may I help you, sir? and would
you like to upgrade to a bigger size for only
thirty-nine more cents? People don't speak to one
another any more than they need to, especially when
one of them is working a shitty minimum wage job
fattening you up. She's not looking at you, or your
order; she's looking at the money changing hands, and
at the clock, and her eyes never meet yours as she
turns on her smile and shoves the tray at you.
Mmm. You haven't ate all day long, man. (Never
rob a bank on an empty stomach.) That's a tasty
burger. You can feel the fat sapping years from your
life already, Greg. Greg... Greg! Why are you
looking at that girl behind the counter?
"Come." She gasps suddenly, a squeal flying out of
her before she even has a chance to stifle it.
"Come." Another squeal, and the scattered
transients all turn their heads towards the counter.
When they finish their food and leave, and file back
into their cars, they'll say, what was up with that
redhead behind the counter? And then they'll forget
all about it, just like they'll forget all the tiny
fast-food restaurants and rest-stops and peripheral
people. They save their vacation-time memories for
majestic mountains, historical landmarks, and
rubber-band balls, not human oddities and mysteries:
space is scarce.
"Come." Her hands cover her mouth, and only a
little meep escapes, with no hint of a drawl. Someone
comes up to the counter and you give her a reprieve.
You just gave a beautiful, Kentucky-fried redhead
three finger-licking good orgasms. But don't pat
yourself on the back, man. Doesn't this seem a bit
fucked up? Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't this
qualify as rape? You didn't touch her, this is true;
you didn't use her for your own sexual satisfaction.
But rape isn't necessarily about sex, is it? It's not
about getting off. It's about power, and violation:
and making this poor girl come without consent would
constitute a violation. You can argue that it's
really more on the level of a sophomoric prank, like
that time in high school when you coped a feel off of
Amanda Crumb. But there's a difference here: you
didn't make Amanda Crumb come. Whether you physically
touched this girl or not, you reached inside her body
with your words and manipulated the muscles inside
her, controlled part of her body against her will.
Exercising control over another person is a power
trip, Gregory. And that's rape: violation and power.
What's more, you knew it was wrong before you did
it, and while you did it, and now, after you did it.
You knew it was wrong and you did it anyway: why?
Come on, Greg. We're waiting for an answer.
Why are you walking towards the counter, towards
the redhead? You're smirking. Why are you smirking,
Greg? This is wrong, man. This is wrong and you know
"May I help you, sir?"
"Come harder than you've ever come in your life."
She braces herself against the counter with her
arms, her body shakes, and her thighs clench together,
her mouth a twitching chasm that smells of bubblegum
and french fries. She exhales sharply through her
nose, and her body relaxes, and she looks you straight
in the eye and smiles. "Thank you."
DOESN'T MATTER. IT'S STILL WRONG.
DREAMS HAVE THEIR OWN LOGIC.
The pretty redhead knocks on the door to your motel
room, and in another moment, she's naked and pouncing,
dancing, dancing, dancing, kissing, loving, tumbling,
screaming, crumbling (sated), drifting off to sleep as
you caress her red locks (the mark of Cain) and she
says her name is Sandy. Morning comes and the dream
YOU PAY FOR THE ROOM and get back on the road.
YOU PICK UP A HITCH-HIKER. His name is Harry Cash and
he just got out of prison.
YOU LOOK AT THIS OLD man, and you wonder: could this
be me in fifty years? Sunlight pours in from the
diner window (yes, a diner, a real live diner, you
actually found one deep in the heart of Tennessee) and
splashes on half of his face, making it glow, making
his black dots-for-eyes twinkle. The dark side of his
leathery face is wrinkled and pock-marked, like a
block of pavement; there's a crack in this cement
block of a face, running from his ear to his nose, a
nasty, curving scar, pink and ugly.
He's been talking for an hour (hardly touched his
coffee). He talks with his big hands, grand gestures
undercut by tiny, self-effacing chuckles. It's not so
much a laugh as a raspy invitation to laughing, like
he's about to start but since you don't, he doesn't.
Whether the story is funny or sad, he laughs in this
way: maybe he's embarrassed to be talking at all. But
he keeps talking.
"First time I went to prison, Mr. Dingham, I was
put there by 'Menlo' Parker. Now, I know the name
doesn't carry much mileage these days, but in those
days, he was the best damn gadgeteer there was. He
was never as big as some of the others, never famous
and revered like the Journeyman, for example, but he
was damn good at what he did, and for the two or three
years that he did it, he really shined. Now, I got a
very light sentence on account of me being a
first-time offender, and an account of my wife came
from good people and could afford a lawyer that really
danced, a real Fred Astaire of loopholes, you know?
And this is before any of the laws were passed that
makes it harder on super-criminals. Which is what did
me in, in the end. But I was talking about 'Menlo'
Parker, and the first time I was in.
"There was this guy there, Larry, who was my
cellmate and became my friend: I watched his back, he
watched mine, etcetera. Well, it turns out Larry was
put away by 'Menlo', too; in fact, Larry was the first
costume that 'Menlo' put away. He went by the name of
Fish-Monger, on account of he could control fish. You
think it's a silly power, but Larry was a very canny
sort of guy, and even captured him, took him to his
lair, which was actually his apartment. And Larry
goes to city hall and demands a ransom. And while
he's away, 'Menlo' unties himself, kills all Larry's
fish on account of feeding them too much, and then
blows up all the fish in the lake. Well, Larry got
himself tuckered away into prison, like I said, but
what really burned him up wasn't that he was in jail,
but that the son-of-a-bitch overfed his fish.
"And so, Larry and I, we plot our vengeance, so
that once we're both out of jail, the Gas-man and the
Fish-Monger will rid the world once and for all of
'Menlo' Parker, or some such nonsense. Larry was very
serious about it, though. He loved those fish. He
got out before I did, and was going to wait for me,
but two days before I got out, he ended up coming back
in, trying to steal some tropical fish or something.
And so I'm going to wait for him to come out, and what
happens is, while he's in prison, Larry gets himself
"See, there was this other guy, from Boston, called
himself Fish-Monger on account of he could control
fish also. And Larry and him get into it, and Larry
shoots his mouth off like he does and..." Harry throws
his hand up into the air, and then continues quietly:
"Broke his fucking neck.
"I was pissed, this guy was my best friend. So I
swear vengeance and I pull on my costume and I find
the Journeyman. The Journeyman! Now, if I'm
outclassed by 'Menlo' Parker, you know damn well the
Journeyman is out of my league. But I did this to get
thrown back in jail so I can kill the bastard what
killed Larry, right? And the day I get in... the
Boston Fish-Monger dies of a heart attack. And that's
just my luck, you know? When that happened, my wife
said, Harry, you are a schmuck! And she was right,
god bless her. She's gone now."
And he throws his massive paws up in the air and
lets them drop on the table, the gesture with which he
ends all of his stories. This is a man with history
in his veins, with anecdotes burned into his skin.
"All gone. She was good to me, damn good to me. I
mean, it's damn decent already to be married to a
super-criminal, to stick with him all through the
years. Well, we were on and off mostly, and when I
was in prison, we were mostly off. But if I needed
her, I could call her, and that's love, young man. We
were on again when she died, back in '88. She said,
these were her last words, she said: tell that schmuck
I love him. Sense of humour, that one. Tell that
schmuck I love him. That's poetry, you know? Better
than I deserve. Damn sweet of her, to go out of this
world with me on her mind and that on her lips. Hmm."
He drinks his coffee, and it's cold. He gets the
waitress to refill it, and smiles at her like a
grandfather before he turns to you and says, "Well,
enough about me, Mr. Dingham. What about you? What's
AND SLOWLY, YOU SURPRISE YOURSELF.
Slowly, carefully, you tell him your story, Gregory
Dingham: about your mother and how you killed her,
about Sandy's orgasms, about the plumber, about the
bank, about your flight from Michigan. Unlike his
stories, you don't digress, you don't give a single
extraneous detail or colour to it. You just tell your
story, plain and straight-through, unadorned, and only
a minute or two elapses.
Maybe you've been telling your story to yourself
these past couple days, over and over again,
rehearsing it like a speech, honing it to its
essentials, whittling it down, casting off the
shaggy-baggy real-life stuff that makes one memorable,
and unique, and endears you to someone. You don't
want to be memorable, or unique.
Even though you're draining the story of
personality, with the kind of bare-bone facts that
should make you out to be a bastard, there's something
about you that this old man likes.
Harry Cash reaches his hand out and puts it over
yours and says, "I have a very stupid idea."
THE NEXT MORNING HARRY TALKS.
"HERE'S HOW WE DO THIS.
"There are two ways to make it in this game, Mr.
Dingham: you fly solo or you fly for hire. Flying
solo means you stake out a bank, you rob that bank.
You stake out a museum, you rob that museum, you find
a fence to take the goods. Whether there's one of us
or two of us or eight of us, that's flying solo.
"The other way to do this thing, is to do it for
hire. You won't believe the number of rich
sons-of-bitches out there who will hire us. There's
always somebody looking for a supervillain, and if
you're good, you've made a name for yourself, they'll
come looking for you."
"Mr. Cash, I'm not a supervillain."
"It's just a term. It's just a label. It don't
mean anything, Mr. Dingham."
"I mean, villain, to me, that means evil, that
means twirling your moustache. I'm not evil."
"Well, neither am I! You see, Mr. Dingham,
personally? I prefer the term supercriminal. I mean,
I ain't pretending I'm on the straight-and-narrow, on
account of I ain't, but the simple fact of the matter
is, supercriminal hasn't exactly entered the
parliament of everyday discourse."
"Thank you. Yeah. You see, the problem is that,
we came after. First, there were these guys, these
vigilantes and what-not, in tights and capes and
jumping around, and they got this great label,
superhero. Just conjures up an image, you know? Mom
and pop and apple pie and sun-shining day-light stuff.
Superhero. Say it, Mr. Dingham."
This feels stupid. "Superhero."
"That's right. That's a damn good word. The
problem is, we came after, and being their opposite
number, we got the opposite label. Opposite of a hero
"So the opposite of a superhero is a supervillain,
"Well, I don't like calling myself that. You start
to do that and it warps your brain, I think."
"Maybe it does a little. I dunno. And, like I
said, I would prefer supercriminal. But the opposite
of a supercriminal would be a superpolice, or a
supercop or something, and unfortunately, they're
called superheroes and so we're supervillains. Don't
think about it too much, Mr. Dingham.
"Anyway, I was saying, you can do it solo or you
can hire yourself out, like an independent contractor.
Now, see, if you work for them exclusive-like, you
know, like a henchman, you have to damn well do what
you're told to do, on account of you're an employee,
right? But as an independent contractor, you can just
walk away from a job if you don't want to take it.
There's freedom in it. And being hired out means
you're getting more money usually for less work, on
account of these guys that would hire you, they've got
cash to burn and they're more than willing to pay a
couple of clowns in long underwear to distract-- just
distract!-- some hotshot hero while someone else does
something else, and you get a lot of cash for it. Or
they ask you to kidnap somebody. You do a kidnapping
yourself, you got to get the ransom. Kidnapping is an
incredibly stupid crime. You know why?"
"How are you going to get the ransom? Yeah. But,
you kidnap someone for somebody, you turn them over,
you get your cash, and then it's their problem, you
know? And you skip town with the money as soon as you
can, so that when they get caught, you're too far away
to get roped in. That's how you make it in this game.
"The thing is, of course, the question is, how do
you get yourself hired? I mean, there ain't exactly
ads in the paper. Though there was this one guy I
knew, and he did just that, put an ad in the paper for
someone to do a job for him, I dunno what it was, rob
some jewelry or something, and he put that right in
the ad, on account of he wasn't too bright. He gets a
call from a couple of guys calling themselves the
Danger Duo, and of course it's a couple of federal
agents there to arrest him, and he went to prison for
a long time. Last I recall, he was putting ads on the
internet for someone to kill the federal agents, and
the same damn two federal agents answered the ad, came
to the prison to see him. They got a big kick out of
it, but he didn't, Jameson was his name. And, poor
guy, he hung himself that night, on account of he
couldn't take the embarrassment."
"But, you were saying...? About, uh, how to get
"You make a name for yourself, that's how. You do
something that demands attention-- and the top dollar.
Any guy with the money to pay you what you deserve,
they'll find a way to get in contact with you, even if
the law can't. Now, every once in a while you hear
about a couple of supervillains that do a job for
someone and they get stiffed, or worse, they get
stiff. That's a little bit of wordplay there, Mr.
Dingham. I wish I could say it was my own, but it's
not. That little bit of phraseology came from Lincoln
Mudd, the old gunslinger, one of the first of our
number. He was born in eighteen-sixty, at the cusp of
the Civil War between the states or whatever you call
it, depending on which side of the fence you whizzed
on. He was still alive during my long stretch that
just recently ended, on account of his body aged very
slowly, and was very resilient-like. He knew the
game, and most of what I'm passing down to you now, I
heard first from him, and from some of the others. I
guess the first lesson is always to listen."
"I'm listening." Some sarcasm must be creeping
into your voice when you say that, because he takes
"If I'm boring you, Mr. Dingham, I apologize. I'm
just an old man, and while I know a bit I don't know
everything, and if I'm boring you then, like I said, I
apologize, I'm sorry. We're almost there..."
"Mr. Cash. Please, continue."
"But Lincoln Mudd knew the game, and he reasoned
that anybody who was going to kill you or stiff you,
he wouldn't be able to hire anybody again. And so it
stands to reason, that anybody who has hired a
supervillain in the past, he ain't going to kill you,
on account of he probably would have killed them
first. And so you only work with those so-called
masterminds and millionaires that have worked with
"But if you only work with those who have proven
themselves, what happens when they die? How does
anybody else prove themselves?"
"That's their problem, Mr. Dingham, not ours. Our
only concern would be the job, and getting that job,
and doing that job. So let's start on getting one of
these. Let's go out and make a name for ourselves."
"And how do we do that?"
He smiles at you, and you can tell that he's been
wanting to say this for thirty-some years. "We're
going to unmask a hero."
"Really? No shit. That's ballsy. Do you think we
can do it?"
"I don't see why not."
"I dunno, kid. I've been in prison some thirty-odd
years. I don't keep up on who's who these days. We'd
want someone big, someone with his own lunchbox and
everything. But someone we can handle, you know, on
account of we're you and I and while I think there are
big things ahead of us, I wouldn't want to pit
ourselves against some muscle guy, some powerhouse.
And we don't want anyone too new, a newbie or any of
these wimps or pretty-boys-- they still have the
pretty-boys, don't they?"
"That seems to be all they have these days."
"And the women with the big titties. Let me tell
you, I've fought a few women in my times, and the ones
that were the hardest to fight, my toughest opponents,
they were what people would consider these days
somewhat homely. But back then, it didn't matter as
much. The flighty ones, on the other hand, the pretty
ones, the ones with the fan clubs and the hips and the
big... well, they were very easy to defeat, no
challenge at all. On the other hand, they do look
nicer on the lunchbox and they were a lot more fun to
battle." He chuckles. "When I was in prison, I knew
this guy, the Century Man, who got a hold of the spear
of destiny. No shit, the spear of fucking destiny."
"They stabbed Jesus with it, right?"
"That's right. And that fucker Hitler had it
during double-ya double-ya two, so no one could touch
him, on account of anyone who had the spear of
destiny, they could not be defeated, on account of it
is the most powerful weapon known to man or some such,
on account of it stabbed Jesus in the side."
On account of rambling, you try to get him back on
track: "So, the Century Man had it?"
"Yeah. Now, he was a hero, right, fighting
supervillains and everything."
"But I thought you said you knew him in prison."
"No, I said I knew him while I was in prison. Do
you want me to finish the story or not?"
"Well, this guy was undefeated, because of the
spear of destiny which was in his possession. And
this is the story of his sole defeat. There was this
stripper, name of Jane the Train, on account of a
particular sexual practice of which I'm too delicate
to mention in any kind of incriminating detail. Well,
there was some kind of demonic going-ons in the strip
place, and so Century Man, who usually spends his time
fighting demonic menaces of one variety or the other,
goes to investigate. And Jane the Train, while
Century Man is en route, she becomes the bride of some
demon, some name she told me a thousand times that I
can't pronounce, always used to piss her off. Anyway,
and so she gets this demonic power and using said
power, starts burning off people's limbs and
everything, and the Century Man shows up and, as they
say, battle is enjoined, good versus evil, yadda,
yadda, yadda. And during the course of this battle--
you see, Jane, being a stripper, I forgot to tell you
this, but she was pretty well-endowed, I mean,
top-heavy, you know? Which is why I was reminded of
this story earlier, since we were talking about women
supers who had similar, uh, chestal proportions." He
seems a little embarrassed, the old guy, but you can
tell he's also enjoying himself.
You nod, and he continues: "Well, basically,
Century Man and Jane the Queen of Hell, nee the Train,
are battling, and Century Man just can't stop staring
at her chest. I mean, these things are huge. And,
she being a stripper, she's pretty scantily-clad as it
is. So she's throwing fireballs and demonic energy,
and here is this guy, with the spear of destiny, the
most powerful weapon ever to fall into the hands of
man, and he's adjusting his crotch on account of
severe woodage. And she's floating around, jumping
about, and they're bouncing, and he's losing his
focus, he can't stop staring. Even supers are men,
you know? And she summons this massive flame and it's
too hot and, though her body is protected, demon like,
her top burns right off and poor Century Man, he's
finished, man. His eyes just zero in on their naked
glory, and the next thing he knows, he's trapped in a
pit of hell, having been knocked out in between while
distracted on account of knockers. How he got out and
all that isn't nearly as important, suffice to say
that he did, and Jane was divorced from this prince of
fire and took on again her maiden name and profession.
But the whacky thing is, Jane and the Century Man
start dating, and as far as I know, they remained
married until his dying day. What happened there is
that he lost the spear of destiny, and when it is no
longer in someone's possession, that person dies.
Legend has it that's what happened to Hitler; Patton
got the spear and Hitler committed suicide. But they
were nice enough, and I knew them on account of Jane's
brother was a supervillain, the All-Mighty Leaf. He
was a bit of a nut and had no powers to speak of, but
he was my cell mate for a couple years and a very
friendly sort, and so when they visited him, he wanted
them to meet me and so we sometimes, the four of us,
had lunch together in the visitor's room. And, I tell
you, I ain't no Century Man, but if I was, yeah, I
probably would have gotten knocked out too, staring at
For some reason, this is the funniest part of the
story, and you start laughing. He smiles.
"You like that one, Greg?"
"Yeah. You know, Harry, you're all right."
"It's, it's not exactly the kind of story you hear
in a super-history class."
"No, it's not. I know dozens of them, hundreds of
them, you know? When you're in prison for a long
time, especially with supervillains, they like to
talk, and each of them has a story, if not twenty of
them. And if you listen, then they're your stories,
for you to tell and to pass down generations." He
looks impish for a moment and adds: "But you want to
be careful when you pass down that last one, on
account of the age and disposition of the recipient.
Doesn't go too well with the under-twelves, or more
specifically, their mothers."
"Do you have any kids, Harry?"
"Yeah, I had one."
And so he tells you the story.
"I WAS DATING THIS WOMAN.
"We were dating for maybe five months when she
starts acting real strange, crying at the drop of the
hat, not so sure anymore if I loved her. And I did, I
do, to this day I do, as this is the one who became my
wife. Her name was Lydia, and she had dawn in her
eyes and dusk in her body. That's what I said to her
when we were, you know, courting. We got along real
well, and this is, of course, before I became the
Gas-Man, and let her down. But that's another story,
"So, something's wrong. She gets real worried, and
one day she finally tells me that she missed her
period, that it's been two or three weeks late and her
whole life, it's been real regular, on the dot,
twenty-eight days apart every single time, never
missed one, never been a day late and now, two or
three weeks. And I should have noticed, on account of
the blood didn't exactly inspire my ardor, so I should
have noticed that we've been, you know, uh... pretty
regularly and without that particular interruption.
So, she says that she thinks she's pregnant, and she
was worried now that I would leave her.
"Now, I heard about guys that did that, but that
wasn't me, and to top it off, I loved her, and meant
to, intended on spending the rest of my days with her.
And so I told her, I said, Lydia, I love you.
Nothing's going to change that. If we're going to
have a baby, than we're going to have a baby, and I
will get a job (I was unemployed at this point, times
were bad) and take care of the both of you, and that's
a promise, and you know me, this I'm saying to her, to
Lydia, I say: you know me, and when I make a promise,
I keep it.
"The weekend was pretty pleasant, she had love in
her eyes again, and we came up with different names
for the kid. This is in '64 or so. It wasn't until
the next year that I became the Gas-Man. And on
Sunday, I surprised the both of us and proposed. I
never intended on it. I figured, I love her and she
loves me and so we don't need a piece of paper or a
man in a church that says that. But out of the blue,
I proposed, and we intended on skipping down the week
after and doing it real quick, real intimate like, and
we were very happy. I was a little worried, though,
you know? I mean, I'm twenty-four years old and I'm
about to have a kid? Jesus, you know?
"Monday morning, when I wake up, she tells me that
her period's started after all. She seemed a little
sad, but we were both kind of relieved, you know--
false alarm. And I prayed to God after she left for
work and said, God, thank you. We weren't ready for
this yet. And I know that when we are ready, you'll
bless us, so thank you.
"I was at a buddy's house that day when she called
me, and she said something was wrong with her period.
It was really thick, and there were clots in it, like
tissue. It came pouring out when she went to the
bathroom at work. And I told her I would call the
doctor and set up an appointment and I did just that,
I call my doctor and she gives me the number of a, a
"Yeah. A doctor for ladies."
"Yeah. A lady-doctor." It's funny: here is a man
that has no trouble throwing "fuck" around liberally
and talking about big-titted stripper queens of hell,
and he turns red when he says, a lady-doctor. But you
"I tried to make an appointment, explained it was
an emergency, and the lady-doctor said it sounded like
a, like a miscarriage but that she couldn't get in
till Friday. Friday! It was Monday. I called Lydia
and told her about it, and about what they had said,
and she asked for the number of the lady-doctor. She
called them and got an appointment in an hour. Never
figured that out, but I don't think too much on it. I
told her I'd go over with her, and so we were going to
meet at home and then I'd drive her over.
"She... she got home first, and when I got in the
door, she stood up from the couch and stood there in
the middle of the room, shaking, the sun behind her in
the window. I'll never forget that. She looked
beautiful and sad at the same time, man. Never
forget. And I walked to her and held her, and we both
cried. There's no shame in that, in a man crying with
"No shame. And she said, she sat in the bathroom
for maybe an hour, looking at it, looking at the
clumps in the toilet, and she said, that was her
little person. She couldn't flush down her little
person, it felt like she was killing it. So she just
left it in there, and then she called me. And
whenever I hear the words little person, you know, I
cry. I'm getting a little misty-eyed myself. Old
bastard getting misty-eyed forty, fifty years later.
"We went to the doctor, to the lady-doctor, and I
sat in the room and waited, and waited, and wondered
what she must be going through. When she finally came
out, I said, why don't we go to dinner? Whenever she
was feeling blue, it helped to get her out of the
house, to take her somewhere to eat. I didn't have
much money, on account of I didn't have a job, so we
just went to some little chink place.
"And the damndest thing happened. We're sitting
there, eating the chink food, and there's this group
of women in their sixties or so, sitting at a table
behind us, talking about someone's daughter, how the
daughter had a miscarriage and that there was
something wrong with her. Oh, it started all over
again. Lydia had been calm but then, whoosh, here
comes the tears, you know? And I, before I started
running around in my metal suit, I was never big on
confronting people, strangers, you know? But there
wasn't, this wasn't the time to be meager. Not
meager. Uh, to be afraid, whatever the word is. I
had to be a man, for Lydia, you know? And so I went
over to the table, and explained that she was my wife,
though she wasn't actually at that time, but I said
it, she's my wife, and she had a miscarriage this
morning and if they could refrain from talking about
it, please? And they said okay, and I went back to
the table. I kind of expected Lydia to thank me, to
notice that I had done something I don't usually do,
and I did it for her, but she was still kind of
morose, you know?
"But then this woman comes over, from the table,
and sits down right next to Lydia, and I want to
strangle this woman. She starts talking about, do you
believe in Jesus? Because if you believe in him,
he'll watch over you, and you will be blessed again.
And Lydia did believe in it, she was a Catholic if not
exactly a devout one, but this is the last thing
somebody wants to hear in a situation like this. And
the woman gives her a card, I never saw what was on
it, but I think it was a church group of some sort, or
a lady's aux or something, I don't know. Lydia and I
never talked about that day, because anytime I needed
to talk to her about it, she would get upset and so I
would just shut up.
"We still got married the next week, though I never
did get a job, times were tough and I eventually just
gave up and became the Gas-Man. Not that you can
blame her for that, or poverty, exactly. But times
were desperate and so was I. And you know what,
Gregory, you know the funny thing? The funny thing
is, the next day, the day after all this happened, we
got a call from the lady-doctor, and he said that
Lydia was never pregnant at all.
"I don't care what he says. I mourned my son."
THE FIRST SUPERHERO WAS JESUS.
And you, Gregory Dingham, were his sidekick. Do
You used to write scenes in your head, play them
out silently or in whispers, day-dream about meeting
him/Him (when you hit your fashionably atheist stage,
you got into the habit of not capitalizing those
strange and wondrous pronouns He/Him/His, giving into
the urge to strip Christ of his power, to emasculate
jesus). You were the pious orphan of a murderer and a
whore, unrepentant sinners who beat you as your own
parents never did (but if only they had! you'd have a
righteous reason for hatred). Each time you revised
the story, the manner in which they died got decidedly
more grisly and complex, until you felt ashamed of it.
Then you just skipped over that to the good stuff:
Jesus comes tra-la-laing with the Twelve Apostles in
tow, decides you'd be a good Thirteenth, and you find
yourself embarking on a series of adventures and
philosophical debates with Christ.
And while his heart-felt tribute to you during the
Crucifixion was certainly the moment worthy of the
hologram-cover collector's edition, the part of the
story where you really shined was Book of Acts type
stuff, where the early church turned to you, time and
again, for enlightenment. You became the most
powerful of all the apostles, able to heal with but a
thought (plus, you had laser-vision, too). This is,
of course, until your martyrdom, Saint Gregory of
Dingham. You fucking Mary Sue.
Do you remember any of this?
BUT, BACK TO OUR PREMISE.
Jesus was the first superhero. He had a secret
identity: mild-mannered Nazarene carpenter who is, in
reality, the Son of God, able to heal all manner of
wounds and afflictions, to raise the dead, produce
unlimited supplies of food, and give the modern world
a good couple dozen of popular catch phrases (what?
you don't have your "Render unto Caesar" lunchbox?
loser!). And, more than that, he was the perfect
superhero. No moral conundrums here, no question of
the logic of upholding justice through violence.
Jesus doesn't fight evil. The closest thing He
does to it is cast it out of a kid with a casual flick
of the wrist. All He does is heal people. He's the
perfect image of a super-human using His powers to
He doesn't have a weakness (though, if you remember
the book of Luke correctly-- and you do, second place
state bible quizzing champion, you-- all the good did
temporarily flee from him when a woman on her period
touched his robe. But, then again, a lot of men are
nervous about menstruation). When He dies, not only
does He come back to life, but it is the ultimate in
sacrifice. It's not in battle, but in another act of
healing, of altruism, that Christ cries out, It Is
The Perfect Hero.
NOBODY ELSE CAN MEASURE UP.
Which is kind of the problem.
YOU'RE NOT LOOKING FOR JESUS.
"What we want," Harry explains, "is we want a hero
who means something. When we unmask this guy, it will
set us up, on account of how important he is and how
much gumption slash ingenuity-like it took to peel
back that mask."
"It's really not that hard," you say. "I mean, if
my power's good for anything, I can just tell the mask
to tear, burst right at the seams."
Harry-- talkative, storytelling, motor mouth Harry,
always ready with an anecdote even if it doesn't even
really fit the occasion, Harry who has digression
programmed into him like a function of a Texas
Instruments graphic calculator-- Harry is silent.
Fat, old hairy Harry, balding at the top but with a
gray sort of fur on his slovenly belly, Harry who lies
on the bed in his boxer shorts without a shirt,
sweating like a pig, or an athlete (an Olympic-class
talker!): Harry is silent, and still, for a long time.
Then he sits up on the bed, a dark shadow struggling
up from the mass of shadows that line the dark, dingy
motel room, and he heaves a sigh. You've heard that
sigh before. Not from Harry. But from your father.
And Sandy. And your mother. And all your teachers.
The sigh is a prelude to a lecture.
"The problem with the whole thing today is that
there ain't no values, ain't no sense of fair play."
He turns towards you, resting his fat hands on his
fat knees, and his dark black eyes shine in the
darkness as he whispers you into submission.
"There are rules, Gregory, rules of the game. And
in my day, no matter what side of the fence you were
on, whether you were superhero or supervillain, you
played by the rules, you played the game. Let me--
let me illustrate this for you. Just a little story,
on account of I have a point to make and I want to get
back to it. The story just gives you an example, all
You nod your head.
"So, it's sixty-nine, and I'm the Gas-Man, my whole
thing is in full swing, my most productive period of
wearing the funny suit and designing the occasional
death trap. I guess you could say, from sixty-eight
to seventy-one, that was my death trap period. Like
the blue period, or cubism. I had a death trap
period, and I was quite the artiste. These things had
a sense of style, you know? There was theme involved,
and always a way out. You have to give a way out, you
see, because otherwise it's just a more expensive way
of shooting someone in the head. That's an ugly
business, though. Point of a death trap isn't to kill
someone. It's to keep someone occupied, while you get
away. Or, it's for the fun of it. You're looking at
me weird, and I know you don't understand. No one
does besides us, except the heroes who say they don't.
"I mean, you got powers, Gregory. And you can
choose to do things with them, things outside the law.
But should you put on some tights and a mask, a
codename and everything like that, there's a reason
why you would do it. It doesn't make anything easier:
laws are stiffer on costumed criminals, on account of
states want to deter them from existing, ostensibly on
account of making it easier for heroes, but that's
bullshit, Mr. Dingham. States make laws tougher
because if there wasn't any supervillains, there would
be no need for superheroes. None. End of story.
"If there weren't any of me, there wouldn't be any
heroes around, you mark my words. They would find
other ways to help people. Hell, an ordinary person
can do more good than a tights-and-capes superhero.
All they have to do is give to a respectable charity.
Help others in need. Or, you want something more
dramatic? Join the Peace Corps. Try to become part
of a mission, like a missionary thing. Travel to poor
countries and try to provide relief and assistance.
All the good souls could do that, but they don't,
because they want glory. Or, not glory, per se,
because in my experience some are quite shy and they
do want to help. But they want to help in this
particular way, by fighting the very species their
species spawned. They're the chicken, we're the egg.
"Jesus! I got off track after all, didn't I? Wish
I could learn to tell a story straight through. But,
man lives long as I do, can't expect him to change his
habits now. Like the man said, old habits die with
"Anyway: death traps! I have this death trap,
which I set up for Critical Mach. Now, Critical Mach
is a speedster, and if you learn one thing from me, I
hope it's this: never mess with a speedster. They're
too much god-damn trouble. You got a cage you want to
pounce on them? It only takes them a split-second to
clear it. So you have to make the cage drop in that
split-second. But if there's one weak chain in the
entire thing, guess what? They're going to find it.
It takes them two seconds, maybe three to investigate
each and every joint and nook and cranny. Everything
slows down for them, so you can throw out all the
projectiles. Speedsters are the worse sons-of-bitches
in the whole racket, because within their so-called
limited range of powers, they have everything they
need to beat even the most got-it-all-together kind of
guy: and, they'll beat you faster, too.
"On the other hand, they present a very unique
challenge to the death-trap designer. I've always
been very mechanically inclined, and so when I first
tangoed with Critical Mach, at the height of this
death-trap stage, I took it as a challenge. I broke
out of prison, very daring sort of escape, mind you,
to build a better death-trap. And another. And a
better one. And a better one. It was practically
every month, me versus Critical Mach. He was
good-humoured enough about it. I was kind of out of
his league, or rather, he was out of mine. But
whatever: we have this thing going on. And he escapes
'em all, sure enough, but it takes him a second longer
here, or its closer here, or whatever.
"Now, this is the funny thing: if I had designed a
perfect death trap, one that would certainly kill him,
I wouldn't do it, to tell you the truth. It sounds
weird, but you design the trap knowing he'll escape
but hoping he doesn't. Or even vice-versa: you design
the trap knowing it's perfect, but hoping he finds a
flaw and gets out okay. Because, you see, it
challenges you. That being said, I built the perfect
"It was based on the old closing-in-on-you walls
trick, where it would squish you to death, only with a
variant that took his particular abilities, and even
habits, into account. Later, he would tell me that he
considered it a love letter to our relationship, and I
thought that an apt description. The idea was, he
would walk into the room, expecting for me to spring
the trap on him, only the room was the trap. And the
floor was designed so that the faster he ran, the
faster the walls closed in. It was lined with this
alloy designed by Professor Rockhopper, who was a nut
if I ever saw one, but this alloy was special on
account of it took any force applied to it and threw
it back at you ten fold. Including, even, a
super-sonic blast created by the rapid movement of a
speedster's hands. Just throw it back at him, and
then it would bounce between the walls, and he'd have
to run to avoid it, and the walls would close in even
faster, and so on. It was really quite ingenious, I
think. But it came easy to me; I've always had a
knack for gadgets.
"So, I kidnap some broad, on account of how else do
you get a hero to come to your hideout, and leave a
ransom note for Critical Mach. Only, on the way
there, in my car, the girl leaps out the door and
escapes. I try to find her but I can't. Just my
luck, you know? My best death-trap, my baby, my
Magnificent Amberson of mechanical ingenuity, and it's
all for naught, on account of there's no damsel for
him to come rescuing. So I sulk back to my hideout,
and I'm standing in the room, and I'm cursing, cursing
my rotten luck, cursing Critical Mach, and I end up
saying his name, which is what sets the death trap in
motion, me saying his name.
"And so it's sprung, with me inside. Now,
obviously, you know how the story ends, because I'm
here, telling it to you, but I didn't know it then.
Once the trap starts, there's no way out of the room.
This trap, it was designed for Critical Mach, for a
speedster, and I ain't no speedster. Even if I run,
it's not even close to what he does, and so the walls
just sort of creak, creak, creak towards me, inching
towards me, and I realize that this is the last seven
or eight hours of my life, because that's about how
long it will take for the walls to reach me.
"And so I just sit there. Alone, with my thoughts.
Morbid ones, sure, but mostly regrets. And I missed
my wife. We were on again and off again, and we were
off then. I wondered if there would be a funeral, and
if she would come. If she did, would she cry? Did I
deserve to have her cry? That sort of thing, you
know, those sort of thoughts. And pretty soon, I run
out of thoughts, and I just stare at the walls,
creeping towards me so slow you can hardly tell
they're moving. The hours pass.
"There's no fear in that sort of situation. It's a
very boring thing, waiting to die. I think at one
point I sang a few songs, but mostly I just sat and
did nothing, just waited. Like I was dead already.
"Well, again, as you can surmise, I did survive,
and how it happened was, Critical Mach got into my
hideout, underneath the room, and stopped the gears.
He created a hole in the floor there, and got me. And
this is the moral of the story, okay? This is the
part that's relevant. These days, someone rescues a
schmuck from his own death trap, the schmuck usually
tries to do in the good guy, on account of now he has
the opportunity and the good guy should have known
better. But that ain't playing by the rules.
"The rules are, you play fair, and when a hero
rescues you, you either try to escape or you turn
yourself in. Round's over. You don't kick a man
off-guard like that. You play by the rules, and so he
rescues me, he saves my life, and it's understood that
I owe him at least the courtesy of turning myself in.
So I tell him to slap his cuffs on me, and then, I
look into his eyes, and something moves inside me.
It's very hard to explain, even to other people like
me what I met in jail. Only a few of them really
understood it. It has something to do with respect,
and with being in debt to someone, a need to repay an
act of kindness. It's a very human thing, something a
lot of people have lost touch with.
"So I say, you know what? Before we go and you
turn me in, I'd like to buy you a burger. And he
says, and I'll never forget this Gregory, it was very
simple, on account of he was a man of few words, he
says: 'Sounds good.' He doesn't say, you aren't going
to try and kill me, are you? Can I trust you?
Because that's the rules of the game, and when you
save someone's life, even if they're a son of a bitch,
you've gotten their trust even if they don't want to
give it to you, even if they hate your guts, because
that's the right thing to do."
"Well, that's great, Harry," you say. "That's
great. Let's do that. Let's play by the rules.
But... but what brought this on?"
"This thing we're doing, unmasking a hero, there is
a very fine line involved here, this is a very tricky
business. It's not right to just melt his mask off or
sneak up behind him, or beat him to a pulp and do it
while he's prone and helpless like some weeping
Wendolyn. That's not fair, Gregory Dingham, that's
not playing by the rules."
"Okay. Okay. So how do we do this?"
"That's something we got to figure out. But the
rule of thumb here is, the hero takes off his mask.
Willingly. Now, we might get him into a situation
where the only thing he can do, the right thing, is to
take off his mask. That's what we have to do. We
have to force his hand. But he does it. Because that
way, when we do this thing, when we effectively end
this man's life as a masked man, he doesn't go out
like some punk, even if he is a punk. His last act as
a hero is one of sacrifice, of martyrdom. Some sneak
thief running up behind someone and peeling off the
mask, anyone can do that, and so it's ordinary. And
"But if he takes off the mask... then we have power
over him. Then you and I, we are a force to be
reckoned with. We earn our fame, and respect, and
certain level of dignity. And that dignity, that's
important, especially for a couple of schmucks running
around in underwear. And the only way we achieve
that, the only way to earn that dignity, is to do this
thing by the book, by the rules. To be fair and
square. Oldschool. You understand?"
You don't, but you're starting to. So you nod.
"So," Harry says, lowering himself back on the bed,
a lump in the darkness, "let's find ourselves a hero
that's worthy of martyrdom."
YOU SAY THE WORD, "FLIP." The ninety-second page of
HEROFAN flips. You scan the ninety-third:
<<Happenstance: I think the person who affected me
the most was Coretta Scott King. Oh, and Princess
Diana and Madonna. Because they're, like, woman
defined, you know, they set an example. I want to do
that: I want to empower women beyond the traditional
gender roles that men have assigned us, like wives and
martyrs and whores.>>
<<Fast-Fwd: Every day, I get hundreds of letters
from girls all across the country, telling me what a
difference I've made in their lives. And I say, you
know, you can do anything, because you can. If my
whole life and career shows just one woman that she
can do it, or help a little girl through a tough time,
you know, then it was worth it.>>
"FLIP." IS THIS ALL YOUR power is good for? Flipping
At least it cuts down on the paper-cuts.
<<Dark-horse: I don't talk about my past: the more
you reveal, the more vulnerable you are. Let me just
say that it's ironic, to me, that I ended up a
speedster. Because my whole life, I've been running
My whole life, I've been running from something?
Fucking asshole. Waste of life if you ever saw one.
"Shit your pants, asshole." And it's a very
satisfying thought that, half-way across the country,
perhaps in a deadly neck-to-neck race against evil,
Dark-horse is running with the splatters. Deserves
it. Fucking asshole.
"HAPPENSTANCE, JUST YOUR FUCKING LUCK: your period
Wait, how do you pronounce that? Fast-food?
"Your metabolism is slowing down. Down. Down.
You're going to put on a lot of weight this week.
Next week, I'll see if you've learned to spell your
name, and if you have, then maybe. Maybe! It will
return to normal."
HOW VAPID THESE DESIGNER HEROES are, how undeserving
of their fame and their power! No one of substance
ever gets into these stupid magazines; if you want to
find the hero you seek, the one that's good enough to
have his life ruined, you're going to have to look
elsewhere. You tell Harry as much.
"So, what's the next step?"
"I dunno. We'll figure it out."
"I know we will. But we've been sitting on our
hands here for a week, Harry, looking for the
"Do you want it done, or do..."
"I want it done right, sure. I'm just saying.
It's like this, Harry. Let me tell you a story now.
Me and my friends, we always had these grand, big
plans, you know? And we said we would do them, and
get stuck on the planning stage. And it's not so much
that things weren't working, as it was we got
comfortable being stuck in the planning stage, you
know? And so we never did anything. I don't want
this to turn out the same way."
"Neither do I. It won't."
"So what do we do, Harry? What's next?"
"I dunno. Let me get some sleep. We'll figure it
out in the morning."
That's what he said last night, too. But you don't
argue. You watch him go to sleep, listen to his
tired, weary breathing getting deeper, and deeper.
"Have sweet dreams, Harry."
And it's satisfying that you know he will.
THE WEEKS PASS WITHOUT EVENT.
Stories, though. Plenty of stories.
YOUR WALLET IS GETTING THIN.
Three and a half weeks ago, you had close to a
thousand dollars in your pocket, a full tank of gas,
and a plan. Now, you're down to a hundred-fifty.
You've been getting worried every day, every week,
every dollar. Every day you spend in this motel is
costing you fifty-two dollars. Every movie you order.
Every scrap of food you buy. Every phone call you
Oh, shit. You didn't call Sandy last night, did
you? She must be worried out of her mind. Should you
call now? It's only in the afternoon, she's probably
at work, she's probably not expecting you to call
until late. If you call and she's not there, you've
wasted some cash making the call. Guess she'll have
But she's worried. You know she is. She doesn't
know where you are or who you're with. She knows
you're running from the police. She probably can
figure that whatever you're up to, it's on the left
side of the law.
Can you even remember what she looks like? It's
been so long...
Harry's coming out of the bathroom. Time to talk.
"Harry, we're running out of money."
"Thought you had a whole bunch."
"I did. I only got like a hundred fifty left. I
don't even have enough to cover the next three days.
When are we going to get out of here?"
"Hold your horses, kid. We got a plan, right? A
good plan. But we got to do it one step at a time."
"I know we got a plan. But we seem to be stuck on
this first step."
"Well, I mean, we can't just pick some schmuck, you
know? Anyone can do that. Otherwise, it don't count
"It will count for more than if we do nothing at
"What does that mean?"
"Look, I've been here before, Harry. I've had
friends who had big dreams..."
"Yeah, I understand what you're saying, Gregory,
but I don't think this is necessarily the same
situation, here. You can't ignore the fundamentals
and always be looking at the big picture."
"I just want to make sure that we do it." You're
starting to get edgy. "That we don't sit in this
motel room for three more weeks trying to find a hero
that meets some impossible standard, that we're not
using that to prevent us from going forward. I mean,
there are other, much more important things we haven't
even begun to discuss. Like, how do we get him to
take his mask off?"
"We create a situation where it's the only thing he
"Fine. But what situation?"
"I mean, what will motivate one guy to do it won't
work with another. That question is completely
dependent on the subject, and that's the only reason
we never broached it before."
"Okay. Fine. What about you?"
"What about me?"
"You're the Gas-Man, right? The famous gadgeteer
and chemist with the flying iron suit."
"Okay: where's the iron suit? The chemicals? The
"I don't know."
"Yeah. How much does it cost to build a suit?"
"For me? It might take about two weeks to get a
decent one in order..."
"How. Much? Money, Harry."
"Couple thousand, maybe."
"Okay, well, in that case, I'm only eighteen
hundred and fifty short. You don't have any, uh, in
layaway or anything? A suit, I mean. I know you're
broke as fuck."
"Uh... one at a pawn shop."
"When did you pawn it, Harry?"
"Before I went in."
"So, like, thirty-five years ago? Are you shitting
"Why are you so angry?"
"Because we're running out of money. And out of
options. Now, I thought we were going to do this
thing. But it's looking more and more impossible each
day. And, from the looks of it, it was impossible
from the start."
"But we can go to the pawn shop, find out where
whoever bought it is, get it from them, somehow."
"Somehow. Where's the pawn shop, Harry?"
"Yeah, and the buyer's probably in Moscow. We
don't have the money to go chasing across the country
for one of your old suits. And should we find it, how
much repair is going to be needed to get thirty-five
years worth of squeaks out of the joints?"
"I don't know..."
"And how much will it cost to bring it up to code?"
"I don't know."
"We're fucked, Harry. We're fucked and we're
broke. Did..." Calm yourself down, Gregory. Look at
the old guy. He's shaking. Have some pity. "Did you
ever intend on doing this, on going through with this
"Well, why don't we do it, then, Harry?"
"Let's do it then."
"I don't know, but things will work themselves
YOU CALL SANDY AT FOUR.
"Where the hell are you? What happened?"
"I don't want to talk about it right now."
"Are you safe?"
"Yeah, I'm fine."
"Where did you go?"
"Did anyone come looking for me?"
"What do you mean?"
"Uh, no. No one."
"Not the police or anybody?"
"What did you do?"
"No, you don't just say the police when you mean
"Listen. I need you to do me a favor."
"I'm not doing you any favors. You just up and
left. I don't even know where you are..."
"Look, Sandy, there's stuff I have to do. Sooner I
get it done, sooner I can come back." Sooner you get
what done, exactly? Unmask a hero?
"Well, get it done." Live a life of crime?
Go to jail...? "You can help me get it done. Will
you do that?"
"Is this the favor?"
"Yes. Get some pen and paper."
"Will I get to see you?"
"Will I get to know where you are?"
"Jesus Christ, you ask a lot of me."
"I got the pen and paper. What am I writing down?"
"Baker & Neville's Pawn Shop. Forty-two forty-six
West Snelson. Verity Heights, New Jersey."
"Yes. Jersey. Okay, now, write down, item number
four-six six-one-two, January fifth,
"What I want you to do, is go there..."
"And find out who they sold the item to."
"You want me to go to fucking New Jersey? Are you
out of your mind?"
"Just do this for me. Go to this pawn shop, find
out who it was sold to, and get a hold of them, see if
they still got it."
"It. It. What is it?"
"Top secret, Sandy."
"Fuck you. Tell me what it is."
"It's like a suit. A metal suit, used to belong to
a man named Harry Cash."
"And you want me to get this suit for you?"
"No. You get the location of the suit. That's all
I need you to do."
"I can cry if I want to."
"Okay, okay." Hmm. "Sandy?"
"I love you."
"I said I love you."
"Yeah, I love you, too."
"Just calm down, babe."
"Was that nice, Sandy?"
"When you're not with me, it doesn't mean
"I got to go, now."
"When do you need this done?"
"If you can leave tonight..."
"Son of a bitch."
"But if you can't..."
"Son of a bitch!"
"Don't you hang up on me..."
"Good-bye. Love you."
(C) COPYRIGHT 2005 TOM RUSSELL. INTRODUCTION
COPYRIGHT 2005 SAXON BRENTON.
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