Short story by Michael Botur
It was the dud end of the afternoon. The sun was running out of battery. I walked into Dad’s bedroom to score one of his belts to take to my audition for the Taxmans. My breath was blue and the windows were dribbling. I found Dad kneeling at the foot of his bed with this whole big life-sized poster in front of him. His overalls were peeled down, the straps hung around his feet like giant shoelaces. It was a poster of a hot woman in a bikini with big, glowing, liony hair, G. When he turned to look at me, he looked like JFK’s bitch in that clip we watched in social studies, when she’s all worried and panicky and trying to push the brains back inside her man’s head. Snapped. Busted. Today it was my brains leaking, bro. The fuck was he doing with his overalls undone?
‘Wait,’ he went.
I slammed the door. My heart kept slamming after the door. We don’t keep secrets in this house, we don’t deceive. That’s one of the words on my spelling list.
I sprinted all the way down the road, through traffic, into school all the way to the dumpster dump, that’s this secret area behind the Mongol block where all the Down Syndromes moan and stumble around. There was a secret gap between two of the dumpsters and when you got in, there was this whole pit surrounded by big tall steel bins and piles of old, soggy wooden pallets. We were at the bottom of the world, where all the dirty bath water drained to. The dumpsters blocked out the hills with snobby houses looking down on us. I stopped thinking about what Dad was up to as soon as I saw Ricky Brown. He only had two other dudes there—this tall, really black dude from Ethiopia that’s in my PE class and is real dope at long jump, and this short white dude with studs in his ears and freckles whose face looks like he’s got a bee trapped inside his mouth, like he’s all flinchy and aggro. Inflamed. That’s another vocab word I’ve gotta learn, else they might expel me, bro. Too much pranks in English.
‘You’re late,’ Ricky went. The whole school’d gone home ages ago and the sun was all diluted like how Dad makes powdered juice ’cause we can’t afford juice with pulp in it. Ricky had on this black singlet and it made him look real hard, like a sheep shearer or something. He’d drawed bones on his knuckles and tribal tats all up his arms with a black vivid pen. If that was his superhero costume, it was dooooope. I needed to get me a superhero costume.
‘Sup with the lateness?’
‘Sorry, Ricky. I was—’
‘Did I tell you to talk?’
‘—getting a belt to try that thing you told me about where you hang yourself and you jack a masty at the same time and—
‘Gotta pay the tax for lateness.’
You know how in the comics the hero can normly always stop a train, whether it’s by brute strong-ness or a sticky web? And the only reason he gets injured is ’cause of his one weakness? Something musta been letting my one weakness through, ’cause I couldn’t stop the train that slammed into my head.
Turning the key in the lock made me wince and wincing made my broken teeth hurt. We live above a laundromat but the nice heat and fresh-hotel-linen smells coming out the vents go down the sewer instead of reaching us. The door handle was freezing cold. I knew Dad wasn’t in, ’cause there wasn’t much steam on the window. The window’s where we write our spelling if I find the lines on the refill pad too small (not that he’s had time to help with my spelling in, like, aaaaages) I trudged upstairs rattling from the dryers underneath me and my black knees hurt and bits of gravel was still falling out of the cuts and I went into the kitchen and breathed on the window and thought about the word smeared into the glass that I keep going over with my finger. Dad was out fighting bus-crime, y’know after people break bus stop windows and shit. He puts the wrecked posters back and fixes the glass. He’s sort of like Commissioner Gordon, especially ’cause of his white hair and ’cause he moves slow and wears a tie under his overalls. I didn’t know when he’d be back.
I spat in my hand and rubbed my knees and wondered if I’d made it into the Taxman gang or not. Probly I’d have to write Ricky a Sorry card and try again. A good card – one of them $4.95 ones.
I flicked on a light, beside the one that’s for the laundromat that’s beneath our place. Dad’s got these gay eco-bulbs that take a hundred years to light up, ’cause he says it’s saving him money in the long run. It made our place feel even darker ’cause of the pissy-weak light. My chest was thudding as I opened Dad’s bedroom door again. I got an epic fright. There was some ho in his room—nah: the poster. It was still on the bed. I saw on the far side of the room quite a few same ones laid out, and more interesting ones coiled up in those long poster tubes, and I stood there for ages listening to the sirens on the next street over, before I spotted the panes of glass. They’re really sposda be lifted by two dudes, he shouldn’t’ve brought them up in here if no one was helping him (he’s got fucked-up knees and he hardly ever goes easy on himself). He’d need me to help lift the giant rectangles back down to his van. The posters, bro, they were just ads, he was just putting some ads together, that’s all, Dad hadn’t been wanking over some billboard supermodel, he’d been flattening the poster out on his bed. I wanted to text a sad smiley face to him to say sorry. I don’t want Dad to think I’m his arch-nemesis, that’s mean.
Still, every hero’s gotta have a evil nemesis.
I got a bag of mixed vegies out of the freezer and I gasped when I held it against my eye. I sat there on Dad’s bed in the heavy yellow winter air until the whole packet had defrosted on my smashed face, listening to people’s voices in the pipes behind the wall, thinking about my spelling list, thinking about Smashman, then I poked a hole in the plastic and ate some of the vegies and they were alright. Dad’s forgotten how to make vegies, I think.
I got out my spelling lists and sat at the kitchen table, squinting under the one spirally ecobulb. We had no lampshade but it was still too hard to re-write the spelling words and find the definitions in the dictionary on my own. I knew I was gonna get in trouble with the principal but it wasn’t my fault, Dad was sposda be home to help me. In the inside of the front cover, Dad had wroted this stupid quote that he made up to motivate me: ‘A rich vocabulary is the ultimate wealth.’ It’s honestly not, G: that pool full of money that Scrooge McDuck dives into on Duck Tales? That’s the ultimate wealth. Having enough to go to St Pete’s would be the ultimate wealth.
I scraped dried blood out of my ear and I started crying. But don’t tell anyone. Smashman doesn’t cry, he just washes his face with salt, ’cause he’s tough, yeah, that’s what I was doing: washing my face with salt.
The black fog poured into my ears. The bus stop poster was daring me through the glass, challenging me. The whole city was sleeping except me and this one poster. C’mon, pussyhole, said the model for Sunsilk Special Formula as she stood in a rockpool on a sun-setting beach. Do it. I had to make a move. I bent over the gutter, wrapped my fingers around a sewer grate and hauled like fuck. It strained muscles far down my back. It stretched my arms. It was like lifting a car up, like on the Smashman Issue 1 cover, I mean Superman Issue 1.
I held it above my head, stumbled forwards and almost lost it and half-threw, half-dropped the sewer grate. The sound followed a second later, this massive GLANGGGG, and my hand shot up to my mouth like OMG. It sounded like a dropped box of Lego. Little pretty cubes of safety glass fell in segments for a few seconds and then stopped clattering.
I was already twenty houses away when I stopped to look back through the black and orange landscape for just a sec. This red light comes on in the HQ of the bus company when the glass has been comp—comp—COMPromised, Dad told me. I’d put a hole right through the shampoo chick’s paper guts.
C-o-m-p… Compton. Compromised.
I ducked into a phone booth and got changed into nerd clothes. The po-po would never catch me, ’specially not Commissioner Gordon.
To get into the Taxmans, all you have to do is smash someone. I didn’t know who to smash, though. I wanted to make it easy if I could, I mean, you can draw knuckle-dusters on your fists, but it still hurts when you punch someone. I was sorta thinking about taking out a Downer but some of them kids with Down syndrome are real chunky, you could smash, like, 70kgs worth, but they’re unpredictable. What if one of those 90kg ones hulked out and bit you and you got Downer-rabies and it turned you into a Downer-werewolf?
In Science, I lended Ricky Brown a Spiderman 3 pen and some refill and he used it to write this contract that said I had 24 hours to smash someone, else he was gonna put out a 187 on me, plus my Dad, too, he reckoned my Dad’s a snitch ’cause Dad’s sort of like a late night bus-cop. Dad’s job IS snitch, but I didn’t wanna admit it. It’s hard to be on your dad’s side; even harder to sneak out when Dad’s in the house ’cause he’s big on leaving eco-bulbs on for when you drain the snake at 3am, he thinks I’m still a four-year-old and need a nightlight, so I waited till he got called out at, like, 5am and then I got some shorts on and my dark green hoodie and my skate shoes ’cause they’re real good for sneaking up on people and I borrowed the spare key from its hidey hole.
It’s only in the night that I feel awake, electrified. I don’t move my own body—impulses move me. Electricity moves me. I was swept up in a black, rapid river which shoved and spun me past the parked cars with their white, frosted windscreens, past the council guy in his street-sweeping buggy, past the dairy where the guys were unloading milk (Smashman had to use his cloaking hood to get past those guys), and the night-rapids hurled me into this street where the big old trees were hanging over the pavement too much, dribbling seeds and cones and flowers. Benches with no tag, Jaguars in the driveways, fences with no broken bits, rose bushes. A rich white people hood.
There was a secret entrance to my school at the far end of an alleyway. I stopped sprinting and started creeping. I saw a cat’s eyes glowing. There was only one truck in the parking lot, but it was the caretaker’s, that’s always there. There was no one in the Plaza—no Asians, no Indians, no cool kids, and only one ninja-gangsta-superhero: this guy. I went behind the noticeboard just to check if any bloodhounds was following me, sometimes your nemesis does that to you (sends dogs after you). The noticeboard had a newsletter about what the Christian club’d been doing in Bangladesh. If you wiggled the panes of the noticeboard just right, you could slide them out. That’s what I done, slid the two panes out, then I was like, Smashman’s gotta practise. I placed them on a bleacher and karate-chopped them and I had to do it harder and harder before the first one actually broke and it was so sharp I hardly felt it slice me, and for the second pane of glass, I twirled around and done a massive discus throw and I was already the fuck outta there before it hit the ground and shattered. I wasn’t thinking about who I was gonna smash until I got past the parking lot and my sprinting slowed down a fraction. I saw that someone was bleeding all over the sidewalk, the blood was darker than the night, it looked like spilled motor oil, they must’ve got a real bad hiding and had a bleeding nose, then I was like, click: that’s why my hand feels weird. I started thinking I could become a crust-asian undersea crab-villain ’cause, like, my hand had been split open between the middle fingers like a lobster claw.
I could hardly write, I couldn’t text and don’t even ask how long it took to wipe my butt-hole (forever). They didn’t even let me off classes ’cause of my fucked-up hand, bro, that’s how I knew I was in some serious shit: They were imprisoning me INSIDE school.
I got kicked out of cooking class for bleeding in the flour bin and spoiling, like, a whole tub of flour, and Ricky told the teacher I had AIDS, so I lay in the sick bay and worked on my spelling list because Dad’d been working too much to teach me. Crustacean—I learned that one real quick. Very fuckin relevant. Commission… I could hardly even read that… Duplicitous… That one was a dinosaur, I think. Or that hairy Australian duck that lays eggs.
Eventually Principal Mo called me into his office and he honestly went, ‘I put it to you that you vandalised the school noticeboards on Monday night’ before I’d even sat down and taken a handful of Bible comics from the bowl on his desk. I was like ‘Don’t I get a lawyer?’ but I couldn’t look at him while I said it in case I started crying. My lips went all wobbly and heaps of snot poured out of my nose and my hand hurted. The whole room melted ’cause my eyes became waterfalls, must’ve been my allergies. I looked straight up, staring at the fire sprinklers so the tears would go back into my eyes, but it didn’t work.
‘I honestly didn’t,’ I went. You gotta protect your secret identity at all costs. ‘It was…’
‘It’s okay to “nark,”’ he went, putting his nail clippers down and making little speech marks with his fingers. ‘You can’t switch schools forever. I’ll even sweeten the deal. Here.’ He tossed me a school pen wrapped in plastic with nice gold bits and the school’s web address on it. It was annoying, though—he couldn’t be my nemesis now since he was so nice to me.
‘Ricky done it. Ricky Brown smashed it up.’
He wrote something on his pad. ‘Your father is repairing the noticeboard today. Be sure to get a late pass. You may leave.’
As I was coming out, walking on the moon, floating away from the Earth I’d known, I saw that Dad was in Reception the whole time, just sitting in a seat reading the school newsletter and shaking his head. That’s when I started crying hard-out, like a little baby bitch, and I had to pull my shirt up over my head so the receptionist wouldn’t see me. I saw through this peephole between the buttons that Dad didn’t even look at me, just pulled his sleeve off his watch, looked interested in the time of day, strolled out of the front door, got in his work van and drove slowly into the plaza and started putting new glass in the noticeboard. Do you know how embarrassing his work van is? It’s got our family name writ on it and it says Specialists In Transit Safety and there’s a really cheesy photo of Dad. It’s the only vehicle we got. Mum took the other car after she smashed in the windows of Dad’s van and left crystals all over the driveway. The van always has glass hanging off the ledges on the sides or piled in the back. I hate it, hate it, hate it, but work pays for the van and Dad can’t afford nothin’ else.
I found myself standing in the middle of the plaza, just me alone with my issues while everyone in class had a purpose. Even the Downers. My late pass felt so heavy, there was no way I could give it to Ms Marsh, for real. Everything was fucked-up in my life, I needed to just run home, flip my bed over, build a Fortress Of Solitude and stay in there and draw Smashman’s logo with my best coloured pencils and never come out.
Someone came up and shoved me and I fell over and cut the palms of my hands. ‘Time’s up, nigga. I bin looking for you.’
All the strength was gone from my body. I felt like if I smacked him in the face, my fist would turn to ash and blow away in the wind. Ricky’s eyes were too scary. Have you noticed how eyes are only like one percent of someone’s body, but they’re the scariest part of a guy? Second scariest was his ponytail, it’s like a heavy, oily snake wrapped around his neck like as if to say ‘Strangliation doesn’t even hurt me.’
Someone was behind me, hooking their arms under me, hauling me up out of the puddle. I turned around and saw it was the African dude. They started slapping me with my late pass and calling me names, and Ricky stomped on my toes and kicked a puddle onto me. The bee-sting-freckles guy was there too, sucking on his inhaler. He spat on my jersey and went, ‘You missed a spot, better wash that,’ and kicked more water on me.
Ricky walked laps around me with his hands linked behind his back, like Hitler. (Hitler would be a dope nemesis, G.) I stared at his facial hair.
‘Cool goatse, bro,’ I said to him. ‘Can you draw one on me too?’
‘It’s a called a goatie, not a fuckin… and it ain’t drawn on, whatchu talkin bout?’
‘Sorry Ricky. Your boogers is just making your moustache run.’
He wiped the moustache off. ‘Gimme your phone. Any movies on here?’
‘Of me smashing someone? Not really… not many… nah.’
‘Reckon you’re can smash me, tough cunt? Think you’re Thor, G?’
I looked around at Dad working on the noticeboard. He knew what was happening to me, he had to know, but I wasn’t allowed to call out to him. ‘No.’
‘Here. Take my blade, fuckintake it. You’re gonna need it if you’re fighting me.’
It was just a spork with a separated-scissored-serrated edge. He’d wrote his name on it with Twink, even though it said Woodwork FRD11 DO NOT REMOVE. ‘I don’t wanna…’
Ricky stopped doing his MMA pose and stood up straight. ‘You don’t get patched into my gang, then, fuck off.’
‘Sorry, okay.’ I began squelching away but they tripped me up and made a triangle around me again.
‘Fuck off, I said, you’re in. It was a reverse-test. You passed.’
I wanted to slice them all up with the spork, but I was scared of using it, and my good hand, my wanking hand was weak and still had stitches in it. I wanted to scream, I DON’T WANNA BE IN YOUR GANG, I’M SMASHMAN, but all that came out was, ‘I’m Sma—’
The bell rang and people came out to lunch. The low-ranking guys in the gang looked towards the witnesses, but Ricky was focused on me, like a guard dog.
‘What was you gonna say? Say it again.’
‘I’m smashing you? You’re SMASHing me, uh? That what you was gonna say?’
‘No. Want your knife back, Ricky?’
He spat between my eyes and I saw it hanging off my forehead. I couldn’t tell if it was a yes spit or a no spit. All I knew was I had discovered my nemesis.
Standing outside our front door, I rung our landline from my mobile to get Dad out of bed and distract him, and while he was in the kitchen listening to a silent phone and going, ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to speak up,’ I sneaked back into my bedroom and dove into bed and pretended I was asleep. There was something jabbing me in the back and I picked out a cube of safety glass from the night’s work and I was like WTF?
I had this bad feeling when I found the cube of glass on top of all the AAA1 Ezy Fine Finance bills Dad wouldn’t open but wouldn’t throw away either. I felt like I’d left something behind when I went out smashing, but I couldn’t remember what it was.
I heard Dad’s knees creak and snap as he crouched in the hallway and did up the laces on his left boot, all the way to the top, and then he stood up, swapped knees, cricked and groaned and did up the right boot and pulled on his glass-handling gloves that are impossible to rip.
Dad and the other men replace the posters in bus shelters around the city, plus Dad’s got the contract to fix up phone booths and do late night patrols of the school and to fix the noticeboard windows if those get slidded out and smashed. He has to fight other dudes to get the work though, he told me. Why would anyone be that desperate to work? Work sucks balls.
I pulled the covers over my head and twisted and snuggled and buried myself deep and thought about the The Adventures of Smashman Issue 1. I never wanted to come out. I thought about hero stuff. I thought about villain stuff. Smash in a jewellery store: Bro, that was a dope idea. The money from it could pay for me to go to St Pete’s where you aren’t allowed to bully people.
I burrowed into the warm molten core of my bed and planned me some smashing.
I didn’t recognise the numbers on my alarm clock, they looked wrong. Just one streetlight, throwing orange against the blackness outside. Somebody was slapping a piece of paper.
A big, black dad-lump was sitting on my bed. He’d woke me up.
‘What time is it?’
‘Time to move on. You still have your mum’s bead box?’ He sloshed the bead box so the beads rattled. It was half beads and half cubes of glass I’ve been collecting. ‘They’re suggesting you switch schools before they’re forced to expel you. Letter from the principal’s arrived. Onto your second strike, it says here. There’s a process with the Board before you’d get expelled, but it’d go ahead if they knew… well.’
Dad bent forward, started undoing the laces on his boots, but then he yawned and just sat there, bent in half, staring forwards, hurting too much from work to take his work gear off. ‘Where’s your enrolment form for St Pete’s? There was one in the info pack, was there not?’ He yawned and got up.
‘You shouldn’t keep working, Dad—hey! Oi! Aren’t I even in trouble?’
‘You tell me.’
‘The school thing. Where’ve you been GOING at night, Dad? Seriously.’
‘Please be more explicit.’
‘I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS! YOU NEVER TEACH ME NO MORE!’ I punched my pillow. The only light in the house was over in his bedroom, so all you could see of Dad was a black polygon, like he was in a body bag.
He flipped on the light and found my spelling list. He rubbed his glasses clean and went, ‘Virtuous… Definition: sturdy, right? Noble, et cetera, what was next… Commission. Define it, pronto.’
‘You don’t have to, Dad… You’re going too fast, anyway…just let me fail, Dad, I can’t keep—’
‘DEFINE IT: COMMISSION.’
‘Um… what Commissioner Gordon… does?’
‘He’s from your Batman films? The bad guy? I don’t follow.’
‘He’s not a bad guy. He’d a good police guy.’
‘He works in cahoots with an outlaw, and you’re telling me he’s a good guy? Matey, commission means arrangement. Commission is what I get paid for every job. Fluctuates depending on whether the glass is in an upmarket location or elsewise.’
‘What’s elsewise? What’s flucturate?’
‘I’m paid commission for every pane of glass which I replace, and there’s been a fair few of those lately.’ He got up and the springs creaked with relief and he paused in the door way, hands on the sides, leaning out, speaking into the hallway, closing my door behind him. ‘In fact, if the damage continues, I’m looking at rather a lot of commission this month indeed.’
I started pulling my safe blankets over me like a cape. Back to the Fortress Of Solitude, away from dads with creaking knees, away from schools that beat me.
‘How much is it? St Pete’s’d keep you out of the gangs, wouldn’t it? Channel your energy elsewhere? I’m glad that Rocky character’s not misleading you anymore.’
‘Ricky, not Rocky.’
‘Should be history, that boy. Police’ve picked him up for a whole raft of vandalisms, noticeboard windows, bus stops, graffiti, smashing, you name it. They found his knife near some jobs I did on Wednesday, had his name written on it with correction fluid. He’s been scratching tags or some such silliness in the glass, I understand. Taxman? That’s his little gang?’
‘Well, more of a spork.’ He winked at me.
I stuck my head out of the cover a bit. ‘Don’t switch the light off, Dad.’
He moved away.
‘Is that how come you always work so much? You get commission for every broken bus stop? Tell me, Dad.’
He flipped the light off, and I was in the dark again.