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Tom Ribas
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theman.jpg
Art by Steve Cartwright 2011

(The) Man

 

Tom Ribas

 

 

            When you’re young, you just want to have a good time.  That can be tough in a town like ours, and especially one with the clamp of sadistic authority bearing down your neck.  We thought we were bad and could take on The Man, to put an end to the reign of terror, but that turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes of our dumb lives.

          We were more afraid of him than anything our parents could possibly do; we were too afraid to party, the girls were too suppressed to let loose, and to make matters worse, the options of where we could go to were heavily limited by the local geography.  You have no idea what it’s like to live in a town so dead, where nobody ever dares do anything even slightly wrong, not even because they didn’t want to, but just because they knew they’d get caught.  It was like living in a pre-planned beehive.

          Having the misfortune to grow up in the one place with an insane berserker of justice in control, we all felt robbed of our childhood, forced to a lifetime of timid boredom.  Growing up is supposed to be about having adventures, getting in trouble, being reckless; instead we were forever looking over our shoulders and walking on eggshells, trying not to be seen doing anything even the least bit dangerous.  The boys were always taking shit from The Man—when I say the boys I mean the four of us: Brad, Matt, Jeremy, and then me, Tonk (don’t ask me how I got that name; you don’t want to know).  We’d get caught driving a little up past curfew, and there he’d be, waiting for us with his headlights on in the middle of the road.  If we so much as looked at him funny, he’d take us in for questioning.  If we ever got the guts to light up a joint, he’s smell it from a mile away.  Sometimes he’d plant stuff on us, just to have leverage, to keep us line in case we planned to do something in the future.  Everywhere we went, there he was.

          I remember when we were hanging at Bernie’s, just thinking about something to do, not even really talking, and then the door opens and a big gush of wind fills out from the entrance.  Everyone suddenly gets real quiet, the way it always does when he’s around: ripped trunks of arms and legs all tucked into a khaki police uniform that strained tight against muscles, pecs huge and wide like football pads, a permanent scowl of gritted surfboard teeth under a Fu Manchu mustache, and the reflective mirror glasses that hid whatever crazy thoughts or emotions ran through his little head, he stood there for a minute like a brazed statue.  Everyone went back to pretending he didn’t exist, but it’s impossible to ignore him when he’s in the room.  He sat down at the counter, and Bernie personally went up to take his order; I don’t know what the understanding was between him and The Man, but I guess he just took him with the same noncommittal attitude he took everyone else, so long as they didn’t cause too much trouble in his diner.

          He mumbled something under his breath to Bernie.  We couldn’t hear what he said from where we were; I don’t think we ever actually heard him talk or carry on an actual conversation—that would’ve been too human.  There’d been some attempts to take him out in the past, by out-of-town pushers who weren’t hip to his status, people from the city who wanted to set up a drug ring in town.  They’d all disappeared practically overnight.  No one had actually ever seen him get injured or take a hit seriously; supposedly he’d been shot a whole bunch of times in the past and nothing happened.  It was like he didn’t bleed or feel pain.  Motherfucker must sleep with his eyes open, underneath those blank shades.

          There were rumors and conjectures about when he first appeared; his origins, if you will.  One ran that he’d been a drifter who was once pulled over by a corrupt sheriff; he’d killed him, stolen his uniform and assumed the role ever since.  Another story that he was immortal, and had been around since the Wild West and still lived that way, the way they did when times were rougher.  Others claimed he’d crawled up strait out of Hell, back when the Santo Verde was still a mining town, and someone dug a sulfur pit a little too deep.

          So on that particular afternoon there were a couple of these big biker dudes sitting in the back of the dinner, acting all cool and unimpressed.  You know the type: wearing their leather vests open at the chest, natty black hair all the way down their backs, arms entirely covered in tattoos.  They were big guys, but they had no idea what they were in for.  They were obviously just passing through and not hip to The Man, tiffed at any display of authority being shoved in their faces, especially from some small town cop.  So one of them opened his big, stupid mouth.

          He yelled something at the counter—I can’t remember exactly what—something juvenile and vaguely threatening.  Of course he didn’t turn around, or respond; he just kept staring straight ahead, waiting for his food.  What these dudes clearly didn’t understand was that it was scientifically impossible to intimidate The Man or provoke any kind of response; the guy had nerves of pure steel, and was never for a second not in complete control.

          The biker guy yelled something else, something like, “Hey, Ninny!”  The two of them hunkered down into the booth, giggling like school kids pranking the teacher from the back of the classroom.  They must have taken his lack of responsiveness for weakness rather than what it really was: his mark of supremacy.

          Then the noisy one actually got the cojones to stand up and approach the counter, his friend cheering him along all the way.  We watched in rapt fascination, in expectation of the dramatic scene that was just about to unfold right before our very eyes.

          Then the biker was right behind him.  He laid a hand on his shoulder.  “Hey, you—”

          With lightning speed he reached both hands behind him, not looking back, and slammed the biker’s head once against the countertop, so hard it bounced, the long black hair whipping in the air.  The biker dazedly took a couple of steps backward, in a state of complete shock and astonishment; The Man spun around, grabbed him by the cuffs of his vest and pulled him through that little flip-up panel back behind the counter.  The guy still dazed, he dragged him down to the deep-fryer and stuck his hand inside, battering it up to a golden-brown crispiness, before cracking him in the jaw so hard the guy flew all the way to the other end of the counter.

          His friend was on his feet, coming up to the front, but with his superhuman agility The Man had already launched his assault on him: he punched the other guy in the chest before he knew what was what, making him cough and sputter and then pulling him actually over the countertop to the soft-serve ice cream machine.  There he proceeded to pour a seemingly endless stream of vanilla ice cream into the biker’s open mouth, leaving him with the morbid bout of a life-threatening brain freeze.

          And then, of course, he just sat back down on his stool, calmly waiting for his food to come.  Most of the people had already left by now, but not us; we realized that we had just witnessed something extremely rare: an instance of The Man actually forced to display his awesome power.

          So that’s basically what it was like for us.  Life pretty much always sucked, never really able to do much of anything.  But then we graduated high school, and that summer we got to talking about what we’d been thinking about our entire lives.

          We couldn’t wait to finally get out of town, but there was one thing we still had to do.  We figured it was kind of a rite of passage to go through, if we were ever going to take charge of our lives and feel like real men.  Yeah, we knew it was stupid—but it was important for us to at least try it; when you’ve spent your entire life living under someone else’s thumb, it becomes important that you actually stand up to them at least once in your life, if you’re ever going to move on and leave it in the past.  Even if you get the hell beat out of you, it’s still an important act.

          We pulled up by his house in Jeremy’s truck, around eleven at night.  The lights were on in the windows; we didn’t want to jump him when he wasn’t awake—you don’t sucker punch somebody into a fight when it’s a matter of personal honor.  Brad had a golf club in his hand and I had a baseball bat; no guns: we didn’t want anyone getting killed, just wanted to make our statement.

          He lived in a little one-bedroom house in the middle of an empty, flat field.  No one knew what it looked like on the inside; he lived alone, and no one had ever been inside, as far as we knew.  We had no idea what we would see in there, but it definitely wasn’t what we found.

          The door was open; I guess he didn’t think he’d have to worry about anyone ever breaking in.  We looked around the living room we came into from the entrance; no one was there, and the room was decked out entirely Spartan-bare.  There was a couch, a TV, a chair—nothing much else, really.  No decorations or anything personal.  The walls and carpet were pure pastel-white, everything was immaculately clean.  We stalked inside nervous and extra cautious, seriously afraid that he was going to suddenly appear out from behind the furniture and pounce at us.

          Carefully, in a tight group so we were covered at every angle, we made our way down the short hallway into the single bedroom.  The lights were on in there, too.  We crossed through the doorway; it was empty except for a nondescript bed, a writing desk, and nothing else—we didn’t see anyone there, not until we looked over to the side, in the far left-hand corner of the room.

          On the floor, following a trail of discarded clothing, there was first a belt, then the badge, the broad-brimmed hat we were all so familiar with, a pair of khaki pants and a shirt, the shiny state trooper glasses….and all the way in the corner, huddled there like a frightened animal, was a little, frail creature wearing white boxer shorts.

          At first we thought it was some kid—it was so bizarre; he had thin, weak twigs for arms and legs, and looked so freaking emaciated, like he’d been trapped there for days and half-starved to death.  But he slowly turned his head over to look at us, and we saw the Fu Manchu mustache over his mouth, and cold, ice-blue eyes that we’d never seen before.  Gone was the mean Clint Eastwood scowl, replaced with the quivering lips of cowering and pathetic fear.

          We didn’t say anything, but looked at him with an instant understanding that should have been impossible under the circumstances.  In a way, it made a weird kind of sense: why else would someone act so continually deranged unless they had something to hide, something to prove that had driven them to the brink of insanity and they didn’t want anyone to ever suspect, and made them lash out at everyone in eyesight with crazed vengeance. 

          Jeremy laughed.  The rest of us were bemused, too, seeing the source of all our oppression and frustrations over the years reduced to such a silly spectacle.  Matt dragged him out by the by the hand into the center of the room; he made a little moaning, whining sound that was halfway between a cry of pain and fear.  Brad prodded him tauntingly with the golf club, and then we were all getting into it, kicking him around, here and there, all over.  It was fun, finally getting it out after all these years, getting even for a lifetime of tyranny and suppressed living.  He moaned and whined.  We still couldn’t believe what we were seeing.  We probably weren’t even hurting them that much, really, even though he was so frail, just teaching him a much-deserved lesson about what it feels like to be made to feel small.

          But then his head lifted up and we all saw something on his face—somehow, the fucker had gotten his shades back on.  And the scowl was back, only this time it was fueled with bestial and primal rage.

          He seemed to have grown twice in size; he lunged at Brad with a newfound speed, jumped onto him and started clawing and biting at his neck.  Brad stepped back and dropped the club in surprise; he started frantically trying to beat off the thing that was tearing at him.  We moved to try and pull him off, and the next thing I knew a fist punched me right between the eyes and I saw sparks.  Now he had his hat on.

          I didn’t know what to do with the bat; he was moving around the room so fast I couldn’t get in striking distance.  He had Jeremy laid out on the floor and was standing in the center of the bedroom lifting Matt into the air with one hand wrapped around his throat; he was now wearing his shirt, unbuttoned.  He was taller and his bulging muscles were starting to show.  He threw Matt over the bed, all the way onto the other side of the room.

          In the mad scramble to get out of there, I don’t remember much of what happened until we were all back in the truck; when I once looked back into the bedroom he’d been pulling on his pants.  If we hadn’t escaped before he put the badge on, we never would have gotten out alive.

          From that point we were gone, never to return.  Now we were entirely on our own, with no money or anything for prospects, but at least for the first time in our lives we were out of that thing’s shadow.  We still don’t really know how to put the whole experience into words, or make sense of it—we just made sure we never fell into that trap again, and avoided The Man at all times, in all of his many forms. 

          I guess there’s a moral buried in here, somewhere.  The clothes make the man—or the man makes the clothes—I forget exactly how it goes.  A man is only as big as the badge he’s wearing.  Something like that.

          Every now and then I call my parents and ask them how they’re doing.  “We’re fine,” they always say.

          Well, of course you are.  What else could you be?

 

 

 Tom Ribas lives in Houston, TX.  He has publishing credits for Underground Voices, M-Brane SF, Schlock Magazine, Static Movement, and Title Goes Here.

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