8FOLD/ACRA: Speak! # 5
twopointthreefivefilmwerks at yahoo.com
Mon Jun 13 04:52:29 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.
EIGHTFOLD COMICS PRESENTS
Speak! # 5
by Tom Russell
"The Origin of the Gas-Man"
SHE CHANGED THE MACHINE.
"Hey, it's Sandy. Leave a message."
Simple, short and brutal: she cut you right out of it. No "you've reached Greg and Sandy" or "you've reached Greg" or whatever. It's like you don't exist. The phone beeps at you and you try to establish proof of your existence.
"It's me. I'm just calling to tell you that I love you, and I'm sorry..."
"You just picked up the phone?"
"Yes. How are you, Greg?" She sounds kind of sunny. Maybe it's because it's noon. You usually call closer to nine or ten pee em and she's half-asleep, tired from work. Today must have been her day off. But:
"Why aren't you in Jersey?"
"I didn't go."
"Oh. I'm not angry or anything. It's really unreasonable of me to ask you in the first place. I don't even need it anymore." This you decide as the words come out of your mouth.
"In that case, I won't tell you where the suit is."
"I thought you didn't go."
"Yes, but there is this thing, Gregory, this miraculous invention called the telephone. In fact, we're using this marvel of the age right now."
"Did it ever occur to you to actually call the pawn-shop?"
"They gave you the information over the phone?"
"Yes. The suit's in Wisconsin. The Goodman Museum of Supernatural and Paranormal Phenomenon and Miscellany. I e-mailed you a link to the website."
"I don't have a computer with me."
"Then go to a library, asshole. I'm not doing everything for you."
"Okay, okay. Thanks."
"I love you, Sandy."
"I love you too. So. Are you with Harry Cash?"
"Come home. Now."
"When it's time, Sandy. When it's time."
"Do you know who he is? Do you even know who you're dealing with?"
"Yes. He's a supervi-- supercriminal from the sixties."
"Yes... but he's been in prison the last thirty years."
"Do you know why?"
"He murdered his wife."
"I think you heard me, Gregory. I don't know what kind of shit you're into right now, but I'm worried about you, baby, and this is giving me cause to worry. Whatever you're doing, haven't you been doing it long enough? Just come home now. I won't be mad. Just come home."
"I got shit to do."
"With him? Gregory--"
"It's not true."
"I'm sending you another e-mail. It is true, asshole. Don't you tell me what is or isn't true."
"Why don't you come home, Greg? I want to know what's keeping you from coming home. Is it Harry Cash? Are you hurt?"
"Why are you scared of the police?"
"I robbed the bank. On Telegraph." This you decide to tell her as you tell her.
"Oh. You did?"
"I just said I did, didn't I?"
"Not like you."
"No. Guess not."
"Thank you for telling me."
"Yeah. You're welcome."
"Weird it hasn't been in the news."
"You want me to try and find out if the police know?"
"Oh, officer, I was just wondering if the bank was robbed three weeks ago. Oh, no reason..."
"I'm not stupid."
"I didn't say you were."
"You implied it."
"I didn't imply a thing."
"Please come home."
"Jesus Christ, Sandy, I already told you a hundred times: I got stuff to do. Once I do it, then I'll come home."
"You're a bastard."
"Fine. Then I'm a bastard."
"Listen. I got to let you go. Um, thank you, Sandy. For putting up with me."
"I put up with a lot from you."
"And don't worry about me. I'm a big boy, I can take care of myself."
"No, you can't. I know you. And you're giving me cause to worry, like I said."
"Things will be fine. And I will come home. I don't--"
"--know when. I don't know. But when I figure it out-- look. I will come home. You can count on that."
"I miss you."
"I miss you too, baby. I got to go, though. Get this done."
"Bye for now."
"Bye for now."
YOU'RE GLAD TO LEAVE THE motel room, and the clerk-- fifty-five years old, preternaturally suspicious, a lumpy face and a dagger for a nose-- she's glad to see you go. For the first time that you can recall, she's smiling (a tiny smile for her tiny mouth) and damn near helpful: yes, she knows where you can find the nearest library and yes, as far as she knows, there is public internet access. Her drawl reminds you of the redhead, and though the two occupy separate states of this union, you decide that the motel clerk is the mother. The reason she never smiles is her daughter left at the tender age of fifteen. This motel job is recent; the mother started working here on the off-chance that the redhead, a nymphomaniac with a motel fetish, might check in at this particular road-side motel with the beau of the week. And then, for an instant, the clerk would glimpse her daughter, maybe hear her voice in the first time in four years. And the redhead would not acknowledge her existence, and
the clerk would have to be content with listening to erotic obscenities muffled by poorly-installed insulation and dry-wall. The clerk would cry herself to sleep, and feel a pang whenever anyone checked into that room, but deeper in her heart she would be happy to know that her offspring lives.
Maybe this is all true, probably it's not: maybe it's true and it happened before you ever came into the picture. Maybe the room you and Harry checked into was the redhead's room, and that's why the old woman looks so offended when you tell her you'll be staying another day.
Or maybe she just doesn't like you. It doesn't matter.
It's still a good story.
THE LIBRARY IS SMALL (CRAMPED, not cozy). The circulation department and the reference department share a single desk, and a dirty-looking tapestry hangs from the ceiling. It was, as you learn from Harry later, who was told by a bearded gentleman in circ, created by some artist when the library opened, same as the pebble-based mosaic map of the United States which conceals both the men's and women's restrooms behind its bulky, multivariate shades of gray. The part of the map that represents Michigan makes you homesick, and in an uncharacteristic bout of regional humour, you hold your right hand against the pebbles, your palm twisted towards you. You point to a spot in the pad of your thumb and think of Sandy, and Detroit.
YOUR INBOX IS NEARLY FULL; ninety-five percent of your one gigabyte of free space is taken up by a nearly month-long backlog of e-mails. The top three e-mails are from Sandy. One is a link to the Museum's web-page, which you browse quickly, feeling obliged but not terribly interested. The second contains directions and a map from Map Quest, directions from Sandy's house to the Museum. It shouldn't be too hard for you to figure your way there.
The most recent e-mail gives you goose bumps, and you look out of the corner of your eye before you open it. Harry's still at the circ desk talking (flirting?) with some pretty young bun-haired librarian-to-be. As you read the e-mail, you continually check to make sure Harry's still there, still yakking away; after each paragraph, or perhaps a particularly long sentence, you check.
SUBJECT: HARRY CASH-- THE GAS-MAN
>>From the archives of the New York Times.
FIRST MURDER CONVICTION UNDER NEW SUPERVILLAIN LAW
Harry Cash, 38, was minor-league antagonist
September 20, 1974
Tritium, NJ-- Harry Cash, aka the "Gas-Man", was convicted today of the murder of his wife, Lydia Cash. It is widely expected that he will be sentenced to death.
Cash is known as a minor player on the supers scene. According to Elliot Goodman, a well-known commentator on superheroic personages and their opponents, "If not for the Supervillain Act, [Cash] would not be notable at all."
The Supervillain Act, passed last fall, denies any possibility of parole to supercriminals or superheroes convicted of a felony. It also mandates that they be sent to the Supervillain Detainment Center in Tennessee, newly built and specially-equipped to house those persons possessing paranormal abilities. Cash is the first supervillain to be convicted of murder under this act, which also strips him of any right to vote or hold a municipal job.
"Or any job," complains Goodman. "What we have here is the first major government-sanctioned discrimination against a minority group after the Civil Rights movement. There is not any popular outcry, however, because the minority happens to be criminals who have paranormal abilities or devices."
Senator Manfred M. Santorum, one of the principle framers of the act and its leading proponent counters that "[S]upervillains have a greater capacity for harming the innocent than other criminals. We have steep sentences-- not steep enough in my estimation-- to try and deter citizens from committing crimes. But, when the stakes are raised-- when the citizen finds himself able to turn invisible, or shoot death-beams from his eyeballs-- well, we have to respond in kind. A steeper penalty will hopefully deter those super-powered individuals from using their powers for personal gain and to harm the innocent."
Cash began his career as "The Gas-Man" in 1966, a year after marring Lydia Seltzer. Unable to secure work, he instead turned to gadgeteering. His inventions, however-- among them a "reverse-microwave"-- seldom worked and were often based on faulty science or fraudulence. The reverse-microwave, patterned over the large, quick-cook radiation-based ovens found in many industrial kitchens, was to "make things cold in an instant." He tried to sell the design of the reverse-microwave, and many other inventions, to Hildebrandt Technologies.
He was regarded as amusing at best and a nuisance at worse. Hildebrandt Technologies tolerated Cash until he tried to sell them the design to their own product. He was then investigated and found to have stolen the design specifications. As legal proceedings began, Cash became angry and fashioned a metal suit, based on the stolen design specs.
He began sabotaging Hildebrandt Tech, using a variety of chemicals. Some were of his own design, but the more potent ones were blatantly based on ages-old formula and technology. He was subdued and apprehended by "Menlo" Parker, the famous gadgeteer.
He was given a relatively light sentence of six months, due to the efforts of his legal representation. Upon his release, he donned the suit again, and the name of the "Gas-Man". In each battle with a superhero, he was soundly defeated, and it is at this time, according to psychologist Harrison Fenech, that he became very unstable. "Harry began taking credit for the exploits of other supervillains. He would hear a story in prison and then involve himself in the narrative. It got to the point where he didn't remember when he was lying, and when he was telling the truth: he honestly believed all these things happened to him, just as he honestly believed his pathetic gadgets worked."
In the late sixties, he had a rivalry with famed speedster Critical Mach. "He kept designing these death traps," said Mach. "Only, they never worked. They were really quite slip-shod and I felt kind of embarrassed for him. The last time, he got stuck in one of them and thought he was going to die. The trap couldn't have killed a fly, much less a man."
Too low-profile to qualify as a laughingstock, Cash became more and more delusional and, for reasons unknown, he strangled his wife, Lydia, on the evening of August 5, 1971. He then called the police and turned himself in.
Reno Stout contributed reporting for this article from New Jersey.
AS YOU'RE ABOUT TO LEAVE, Harry asks you what DVDs are, and it would make you sad if you weren't chuckling. At first you say they're just like videos, but he's equally unfamiliar with that.
"It lets you watch movies on TV," you say quickly. Then, you get an idea. "There's some here?"
"Some DVDs? Yeah."
"Show me where."
THIS IS REALLY FUCKING LOW.
You could argue that robbing the bank was a victimless crime; banks are federally-insured, so you're not taking bread money from Ma and Pa Kettle and clan. It wasn't like you mugged somebody, or broke into somebody's house. That would be hurting someone, right? Even the redhead, that didn't hurt her. (She enjoyed it, you keep saying to yourself, trying to justify your actions.)
But a library...
Gregory, when you steal from a library, you hurt everybody. Well, not everybody, not you: this isn't your library, isn't your community, so you're not suffering. No one you know will be affected by the theft of forty or fifty DVDs. That doesn't make it okay, though, and you know it.
Nothing more chickenshit than stealing from a library. This is a place open to all, where anyone can come on in and use the materials. It is an institution propagated on the free exchange of ideas, and art; the library itself is based on a leap of faith, an act of trust: libraries suffer, are considered unimportant, especially next to the firefighters and the police, and libraries are the first to get cut when budgets get tight. And, it's true, yes, the police, the firefighters, these are people who save lives.
But libraries save souls.
You steal these DVDs from this little library, you're taking probably twenty percent of their collection. What will that do to their budget? Will they replace them? Can they afford to?
Every movie you take off this shelf, that's another one some kid can't see, or parent, or grandparent. Every book that's stolen, that's another opportunity to grow that's closed to these small-town Southern kids. First thing to go when they cut back is the internet, that thing you just used, free of charge, to get your precious directions to Harry's precious flying suit. Most of these people don't have it at home.
Another door closed.
Steal from a video store, or a big chain, or whatever. At least then you're sticking it to big-wigs who can afford it. But a library.
YOU FIND A BUYER QUICKLY.
The video-store looked a little sleazy; the owner was one of those guys who didn't really like movies and wouldn't stock no foreign shit in his store. He almost doesn't buy some of these forty-seven DVDs you bring him, until a clerk recognizes them for what they are.
"That's _Dead Ringers_. It's a damn good film," says the clerk. The hairy owner seems nonplussed until the clerk continues: "This version, it's been out of print for six, seven years now. It would cost you sixty bucks, easy, on the internet. And that's if you find it."
"I'll give you thirty for it," the owner says.
"But it's worth sixty on the internet. At least."
"Yep. But this isn't the internet."
Thirty's better than nothing. "Fine. And fifteen each for the others." Fifteen? Shit. Why'd you start so low?
"Ten." Fucking haggler.
You're four-hundred ninety dollars richer. You'll be set now at least till Wisconsin, until the Museum.
Since you got rid of the merchandise, you don't have to think about it.
It's easier to do the things you do when you don't have to think.
YOU FILL UP YOUR TANK and you drive.
"WHEN'D YOUR WIFE DIE, AGAIN?"
"Uh-- eighty-nine. Cancer. The doctor said, you know what she said? The doctor said that, these were her last words: tell that schmuck that I love him."
"Yeah, you told me before. I just forgot the year."
"Yeah. I miss her, Greg."
"You got yourself a girl, that Sandy. Are you good to her?"
"I try to be. It's hard."
"She good to you?"
"Yeah, she's decent."
"Well, when you got a good woman, you got to be good to her."
"HOW'D YOU BECOME THE GAS-MAN?"
"Oh, geez, Gregory. You really caught me off-guard with that one. Let me see now...
"Well, like I told you before, we were poor, times were tough, especially on account of I didn't have any employment. I must have applied for eighty different jobs. Eighty! And this was when the President was telling us times were good, that this was a boom. Well, times were tough and Lydia was working but I wasn't. This caused quite a bit of friction, as I'm sure you can understand. I certainly didn't feel right, on account of I'm a man, I was a man or was supposed to be, and I wasn't doing what a man is supposed to do, and that's provide for your wife.
"But there was nothing out there! In order to get a job, you needed to know somebody. And, finally, I got to know somebody, and it looked like I might be getting a job at this place called Hildebrandt Technologies, this is in Jersey, where we was living at the time. I got real friendly with this guy Steve, and I showed him some of my designs. You see, I forgot to tell you this. You know I was a gadgeteer, but my whole life I was fiddling with stuff. Coming up with ideas and what-not. I ain't one to toot my own horn, but I was pretty good at it, too. As good as 'Menlo' Parker? No. But still good.
"So I show Steve some of my ideas, of my designs, and he goes gonzo over this. You're a smart guy, he tells me, and I'm going to get you a job, he promises. Take a month to go over your designs, to really fine-tune them, and come in a month from now in a suit and tie, and together, together Harry, we'll bowl them over. I say this sounds good and I get to work.
"Things get a little quieter around the home front, because this job is imminent. Lydia and I aren't getting on each other's nerves as much, and she gives me the time to work. Before, she wonders what I'm doing, why I'm wasting my time on pipe dreams-- this is on account of she was always very practical in her thinking, not much of a dreamer, if you will. But now, she lets me work, she brings me hot tea, and-- our love life was never great, I wasn't very good, and our, uh, our couplings were never frequent, but things heat up in that department. I'm sorry if I'm talking about things you don't want to know about, kind of delicate stuff."
"It's fine, Harry. So a month later..."
"A month later I come in, in my best suit, which is also my only suit, having been purchased with the last bit of Lydia's savings that weekend, on account of, we've got an in, this job is a sure thing. Then I find out there's three other people applying for the same job, of which there are two open positions. It makes me a little hot around the collar, but I know my stuff is going to bowl these guys over, like Steve said. In the end? The three other guys got the two positions. Created one for the odd man out. They were all good friends of one of the higher-ups.
"But I didn't know that at the time, and there I was, with my suit, and my designs, one of which was for the very same first suit I wore as the Gas-Man. And as I'm showing my stuff off, Steve is getting a little nervous, looking at me funny. And finally, some of the bigwigs in the room just up and walk out. I'm crushed. I say, what gives? And Steve puts on a show, said that these are his designs that he let me look at, stuff he's been working on a month already.
"Steve was always a very convincing talker. Hell, I almost believed him. Almost. But no one is going to say that the work I did is not the work I did. Things get heated, words are bandied about, and either way I end up home, with my designs, without a job, Lydia's savings wasted on a suit. Lydia never took much interest in the designs, even during that month of bliss, and so when I told her what happened, she was partial to siding with Steve. She didn't think I had it in me to have one creative thought.
"She said if I didn't have a job by the end of the month, she would throw me out. It was the twenty-sixth of February. She had said such things before, but this time she meant it. I knew that she meant it, and I got scared. And then...
"It's like something in me took over, and I was breaking into the building, not really thinking about it."
"Hildebrandt. Which building was I talking about?"
"And there in Steve's lab I find my suit, the one I had designed, the one he had stolen from me a month or so ago, the lying bastard. It was my design, so it was my suit, and I took it. I put it on. The suit was bullet-proof, made me impervious to damage, let me fly through the air, was stocked with tubes that sprayed gas. I loaded it up with gas and started what the papers term a reign of terror.
"I know this isn't very detailed, but I can't really go into my thought process. I was just angry, I guess. My life, my marriage, it was all about to go in the shitter because of this liar, this thief, this Charlton. I destroyed the labs, all copies of my designs. I should have been rich, Gregory. Or, failing that, I should have had a few dollars to my name. Just the opportunity, the right to provide for my family, to feel like I mean something, like I have value.
"God and Steve and Hildebrandt had denied me that right, so I was rebelling against all of them. And you know what? It was glorious. I wouldn't trade it for a second. And in those moments of anger, when I crossed that line automatic-like, without thinking about it, I found my calling.
"I'm a supervillain. Well, I prefer supercriminal, you know. But I'm a participant in the most exhilarating form of spectacle the world knows. More drama and action than comics or movies, but it's real-life. Like a gladiator or something. Pitting your mind and your will against another. You haven't lived until you've felt it.
"For the first time in my life, I was alive. So I'm kind of glad I never found a job. Because if I had, I may never have become the Gas-Man. The Gas-Man is who I am.
"On the other hand... I'm Harry Cash, husband of Lydia, and if I could have been like a husband to her, a real husband, if I could have provided for her and pulled my own weight, then I would have traded... oh, Jesus, I would have given it all up. If I could have spent a year acting like a man, I would be content with being dead.
"No absolutes, Gregory. On one hand, I love what I am and what I've done. On the other, I feel like a shit for it. But ain't that always the way?"
YOU DON'T RESPOND.
There's a good possibility, here, that Harry Cash is a god-damn liar and murderer, that you're sitting in this car, driving a murderer to pick up a suit of metal so you can start a life of crime together. Not that you're one to talk (your mother didn't put herself in the grave). If you follow on this path, maybe Harry's right, maybe you will live like you've never lived before, maybe your life will have value.
But the cost is Sandy. You're pushing her away. It's amazing that she's still talking to you, still begging you to come home after this long. Most would have given up. You would have.
You love her, don't you?
So why not just head on home? Why not return to Sandy and to your job... well, the job's probably blown to shit since you went AWOL for nearly a month. But, beyond that...
Cassandra Drazek loves you. If you've got a good woman... you've got to be good to her...
Just go home, Gregory. Sandy's a sure thing. Harry isn't.
YOU KEEP DRIVING TOWARDS WISCONSIN. With Harry.
NEXT TIME: At the Goodman Museum of Supernatural and Paranormal Phenomenon and Miscellany
(C) Copyright 2005 Tom Russell.
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