8FOLD/ACRA: Speak! # 4

Tom Russell twopointthreefivefilmwerks at yahoo.com
Wed Jun 1 06:48:48 PDT 2005

DISCLAIMER: This series uses profanity, sexuality, and acts that some may consider morally offensive in order to present the characters truthfully and maturely.


Speak! # 4

by Tom Russell

"Heroes, Heroes, Everywhere, and Not..."


And you, Gregory Dingham, were his sidekick. Do you remember...?

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 athiest 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, unrepetent 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?


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 Caeser" 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 help.

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 menstration). 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 Finished.

The Perfect Hero.


Which is kind of the problem.


"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 ancedote even if it doesn't even really fit the occassion, 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 right?"

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 occassional 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, ostensiably 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 their owner. [*]

[*-- Actually, as the Joltin' One said, in TEMPLATE # 1 (April). Too good a line to resist stealing, too guilty about stealing to not attribute it here, in the SPEAK!'s first footnote.]

"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 death trap.

"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 Magnificant 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 sacrafice, of martyrdom. Some sneak theif running up behind someone and peeling off the mask, anyone can do that, and so it's ordinary. And distasteful.

"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 pages?

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 from something.>>

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 starts today!"

Heavy flow?

"Heavy flow!"


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 schmuck."

"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.


Stories, though. Plenty of stories.


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 make...

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 to wait.

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 for nothing."

"It will count for more than if we do nothing at all."

"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 can do."

"Fine. But what situation?"

"What hero?"


"I mean, what will motivate one guy to do it won't work with another. That question is completly 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 gadgets?"

"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 me?"

"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?"

"Uh... Jersey."

"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 plan?"


"Well, why don't we do it, then, Harry?"

"Let's do it then."


"I don't know, but things will work themselves out."


"I was just coming in the door. Why didn't you call last night?"

"I forgot. I'm sorry."

"You promised me."

"I'm sorry."

"God, I was so worried."

"I know. I'm sorry. I need you to do me a favor."

"Are you fucking listening to me, asshole?"

"Stop cursing at me, all right? Get some pen and paper."

"I'm not going to do what you tell me to do just like that. I'm not doing you any favors."

"Look, Sandy, there's stuff I have to do..."

She overlaps: "stuff you have to do... Yeah, I know."

"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?"


"Will I get to see you?"


"Will I get to know where you are?"


"Jesus Christ, you ask a lot of me."

"I know. I'm sorry. I don't mean to hurt you."

"Then stop hurting me. Just come on home."


"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."

"New Jersey...?"

"Yes. Jersey. Okay, now, write down, item number four-six six-one-two, January fifth, nineteen-seventy-one."

"Oh... kay..."

"What I want you to do, is go there..."

"To Jersey."

"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 ahold 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."


"Don't cry."

"I can cry if I want to."

"Okay, okay." Hmm. "Sandy?"


"I love you."


"I said I love you."

"I know."

"I do."

"Yeah, I love you, too."

"Just calm down, babe."




"Was that nice, Sandy?"

"No. I asked you not to do that anymore. When you're not with me, it doesn't mean anything."

"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!"

"Good-bye, Sandy."

"Don't you hang up on me..."

"Good-bye. Love you."

NEXT TIME: The Origin of the Gas-Man

(C) Copyright 2005 Tom Russell

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