Teal Man  |  Helen R. Peterson



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             College sucks. Waste of my frickin’ time. Why bother when most of these classes I can get online now? Save some coin for my parents, let me sleep in a little. But no, they insist I need to do the whole experience, spouting on and on about how college was the best time of their lives.
             Of course, once I got here, it was a different story. Mom cried and insisted I stick to campus, stay away from downtown. Some newspaper fuck searching for a Pulitzer had written a huge exposé on local drug gangs luring dumbass college punks with hookers, doping them up, and then stealing all their cash. Dubbed it “Heroin Town.” Pretty soon the place was swarming with twenty-four-hour news crews doing some pretty sweet business of their own—faceless cameramen buying up hookers just to get them on tape, enjoying some fringe benefits while making some extra coin for the talking heads on cable, whining about the downfall of an American college town. What a joke. Soon as I get my freedom, I’m guilted into not using it.
             What the ’rents don’t know, though, is that half the campus is downtown, so if they want me to graduate any time soon, I gotta brave the mean streets of East Bumfuck, USA. One of my downtown classes, Creative Writing for Liberal Arts Majors, is taught by this guy, Prof. Max Doyen. Every essay, short story, and article I’ve written for this tightwad comes back lousy with red ink.
             I need this class to graduate. I can’t just blow it off and blame it on some freak professor. So, I knocked on his door during office hours, see if there wasn’t something I could do to pick up some extra credit. That’s when I discovered this guy is all gung ho that you’ve gotta experience the world before you can write about it. He goes on and on about writing what you know, that everything I’d written came from the lives of people I’d never met, places I’d never seen. I explained how my mother used to get anxiety attacks whenever I was invited to sleepovers, hoping he’d cut me some slack if he knew what I’d been up against, but instead he got all intense and started shouting that that was the type of thing I should be writing about.
             He must have seen the look on my face, because he calmed down and said he’d give me a special assignment. Told me to go down to Main Street, interview some real people there, and bring him back their stories. Suggested I hit the library, that there were always some pretty colorful characters lurking around there.
             The guy is nuts, like I said, but I figured I might be able to score a dime bag or something, and if my parents or the school officials ever found out, I could just blame it on the professor. Sell my story to some news channel still looking to milk the story a little. I grabbed a notebook and walked down the hill to the library, opening the door to the rank, air-conditioned reading room.
             Some dry old hag was glaring at this old dude from behind her book cart. He looked like a Q-Tip with legs, wearing a bright blue shirt. How some homeless guy kept his shirt so clean, I dunno, and the way he was pawing the magazine he was holding, it kinda freaked me out. But he seemed to be the cleanest person there, so he’d be the least painful to sit next to. I made my way over and cleared my throat, asked what he was reading.


♥♥♥


             People always tell me how nice it must be to work in a library. Peace and quiet, all the books you can read, no real physical labor. It’s a joke. I smile and nod, mutter something pleasant, allow the conversation to flow on to something else. People like that have never spent hours behind a book cart, crouching up and down, putting books away, shelf reading as they go. Shooing out half-dressed teenagers making out in the serials stacks.
             No, most people have no idea. You should see the look of surprise in their eyes when you tell them you’ve got to get a Master’s Degree in Library Science. Demeaning questions, raised eyebrows. “Forgive me,” they seem to say, “but for what? What on earth do you need to study to sit behind a desk, nose in a book? The Dewey Decimal System? Memorize the Encyclopedia?”
             What’s worse than all of that is the smell. I can tolerate horny high school kids and a sore back, but the smell is what gets me, every time. Each member of the staff here, from the director to the janitor, has two pairs of disposable gloves in his desk drawer or locker at all times. One is for disposing of any needles found lying on the bathroom floor or shoved behind the DVD rack. The other pair is for shaking awake the transients who shamble in here and mistake the reading room for a bedroom.
             There’re a few sad examples that shamble in on a regular basis, wasted bodies that have had all the usefulness sucked out of them. A few guys, like Norm over there, have been on the streets for twenty years or more, since the State Hospital closed. Real professionals who know where the handouts are, the warmest corners under the bridge. They don’t even panhandle anymore. Then, you have guys like Tom over there, newly homeless, still fat in a way you only get with regular meals. Sad really, to see the nervous calculation in their eyes, how long they can stay in one place, where in the hell they can go when the doors here close. The newbies don’t bother me quite as much; they’re still apologetic, still ashamed of where rotten luck has taken them. The old timers, they don’t care what you think or when you close.
             All of these guys, I would take them any day, over the one crouching over by the serials rack right this minute, pawing over the People magazine. Disgusting. No one will touch an issue after he’s done with it. Little old retirees used to complain to us, until we got a system going. We have a list; the members of staff read up first on the latest celebrity fashion faux pas if they so choose, and then, we keep the most recent issue behind the desk for a week. Patrons in the know will ask us for it there. Anyway, this guy, he wears this one shirt all year long, summer or winter. Short sleeved, what looks like aquamarine underneath all the grime. Folks have given that man coats countless times. He just hands them over to the new guys or throws the coats in the steel Goodwill collection container outside the Quickie Mart. Carries around old Walmart bags full of Priority Mail boxes he’s stolen from the post office. Hair grown so long and grimy, it’s like one solid sheet behind him. I’ve heard folks around town refer to it as his cape.
             Which brings me to the reason that this guy makes my skin crawl most of all. He likes to go around and tell, to whomever will listen, this tall tale of how he’s really a superhero in disguise. That he spent his youth saving damsels in distress from abusive husbands and teaching them the error of their ways. Blaming the one “chickie” he decided to marry for his current state. As if all a woman needs is a man to tell her how to live her life. As if one woman could singlehandedly destroy a life. Unbelievable, but there are folks who will just eat up these stories, making him a living, breathing folk hero. In fact, there’s some college kid hovering over him right now, notebook in hand, scribbling down whatever nonsense that whack job is spewing at the moment.
             I don’t want to do it, but I’ve got a stack of new issues that need to go out, freshly catalogued and barcoded, so I make my way over, catching snatches of that tired old story I could recite in my sleep.


♥♥♥


             It is cold today. Not as bad as it has been—at least there is no snow falling—but there’s a chill in the bones. I needed to get ’em warm. Besides, it is Tuesday; the new People magazine should be waiting for me.
             The librarian sighed as I walk in, setting off the alarm once again. Did you see that? Nah, I don’t worry about it; they never search my stuff. I think they are afraid to touch any of it. The library director checked my packages and bags once, didn’t find nothing. He gave me a look that said, If it’s under your shirt, man, it’s yours. We don’t want it back. No matter, not likely they’d find anything anyway. What makes the alarm go off is something they couldn’t take off of me. What is it? An implant of some kind they nailed under my skin. Don’t ask what’s on it; that’s classified, kiddo. Need-to-know basis, and I guess I never needed to know.
             I head right for the magazine rack, and nab the new People. What most folks don’t know is that there’s a lot’a stuff written between the lines. In between the vicious nonsense and crap, there’s a message, meant for old agents like me. It’s how they communicate with those of us who have dried up their usefulness. A kindness, you know—nothing really important gets put in there. The really important messages are in Jesse Ventura’s books, and he’s only written two. Didn’t know he was so important, did you? How do you think he got to be governor of Minnesota, for Pete’s sake?
             I wasn’t always like this, all mucked up and hated by decent folks, eating up the words that others can’t see in a skanky, little town library. I was once a hero, son; I once made a difference. Now the only people I make a difference for are the whores in the park, when I bring them water in the summer time. I was once strong and young, handsome and free. Good times, good times … but those days are long gone now. I see you laughing at me about everything but the bit about the whores, but let me tell you a thing or two.
             I was once what you might call a superhero. Oh, not Superman or any such nonsense—nothing quite as glorious as all that. I was born right here on good old Planet Earth, same as you, thank you. More like that Batman fella, you know, avenger of good with all the little gizmos. A member of a covert force charged with protecting the weak in body and mind. We were spread across the country, an agent in every major city in the country. Top secret. Even back then, the government couldn’t publicly go around protecting their own moral code of ethics, keeping young women from losing their honor. This is America, son; we don’t take kindly being told what to do, even if it’s the right thing to do. So, we would take jobs near the bottom, keeping our eyes open while blending in as best we could, communicating with each other and HQ through secret codes in newspapers and magazines. So, I kept mostly to myself, except when I was fighting for justice. When duty called, I wore this snazzy suit, shiny, like the color of my shirt here. We were told this made us seem more reliable than our working-man’s duds we usually wore undercover, made us look like we knew what we were doing. In fact, that’s how I got my code name. Folks, they called me Teal Man.
             Never heard of me, have you? Well, this was a while ago, before your time, I suspect. And it sure as hell wasn’t in this skimpy little place. No way, boy, I was out west in California, back then. Defending those pretty little blond chickies from their no-good husbands, showing them the way. Helping them out with getting away when they’d been conned into thinking some thug was going to make them a movie star, when all he really wanted was to get into their pants. They’ve got some pretty slick fellas out there and some pretty naïve little girls needing a hero. Well, that was me. Teal Man. Never told them my real name—no sense in that, didn’t want them to know me as a real man they could tie down. Didn’t want no honor or glory, just doing what I thought was right, what any honest person would have done if there had been any.
             Well, as you can guess, one day the wrong chickie ran across my path. Not only was she a looker, boy, she was smart, too. Just dumb when it came to the men she ran around with. Got herself married to the wrong guy, a real asshole that slept with anything that moved, then came home screaming for his supper, slapping her around. She was a screenwriter—pretty good, too, although myself, I thought she was more suited to being up there on the screen. Thought she was prettier than anything they had up there at the time, boy. ’Course, that’s just my opinion, which doesn’t mean a thing and isn’t important right now. What is important is that this dick was really messing up this girl’s life, telling her she was no good just too many times, she got to believing it. Well, her friends, they all called me in, and I made short work of it, making sure she had a good attorney who wasn’t going to take advantage of her weakened state. Nice guy, did some pro bono work for me after I rescued his sister from some sleazy producer’s harem. Made sure she had the money to get it all done up right. Made sure he couldn’t weasel his way back in, boy, the best way I knew how. Told that girl my name. Asked her to take it, make it her own. Let me tell you, I’ve stared down the barrel of a gun, been thrown off piers into shark-infested waters. Nothing scared me more than taking her home.
             Yes, sir, life was pretty good. Thought I had it all, that we would settle down, she’d mend my cape in between projects, and I’d go on defending the weak. Problem was, she wasn’t too keen on the weak I was helping, not that that was her fault. She’d had all the trust beaten out of her, and there was just nothing she could believe in anymore. Poor thing thought even the cat was against her. Didn’t trust me hanging out with all those other pretty girls. She got lazy, didn’t write so much anymore, wanted to move back East, where they don’t grow the fruit so sweet, if you know what I mean. And being the fool that I was, I brought her out. Got myself a real job, and hunkered down, still thinking I’d gotten the greatest thing. Boy, I tried everything to make her happy. Problem was, it wasn’t enough. She’d been damaged through and through; I hadn’t reached her in time. Got to be so bad, her whimpering in the dark, I just went crazy. Flew back to California and killed the son of a bitch. Good riddance, too.
             Problem was, neither my sweet girl nor the law could see it my way. They locked me up and threw away the key. And the look she gave me as they did it, well, as if she didn’t even know me, as if I hadn’t done it just for her. Made me think at the time I should have let him beat her, the ungrateful little bitch that she turned out to be, messing with a man’s emotions, making him think one way and feel another. Just not right. Do yourself a favor, boy, and leave that kind alone. Once they’ve been messed up that bad, they’re no good to anyone.
             Well, eventually they let me out, and there was nothing to go back for. My wife never answered any of the letters I wrote to her, telling her I forgave her for turning her back on me. She had died while I was locked up. Just gave up on mankind, I guess, though I doubt she’ll do any better up in heaven with them angels. From what I hear, and I could be wrong on this, they’re all men, too. None of the other little chickies wanted my help, either. They were all afraid of me at that point. Though I guess it was just as well; they banned me from the state of California anyway. So, I just drifted in here, thought I might find some rest, sit back and decode the latest People magazine.
             Well, sir, that’s the end of my story. Finished the last page of People, now, too. There’s no one in here now but us, and the librarian is eyeing the clock, wanting to close up, I guess. So, what I usually do now is I get up and slowly start pushing in all the chairs that have been left out, buying time before I’ve got to go back out into the chill. Then, I gather up my boxes and plastic bags and shuffle out, and she closes up, her tight lips silent and her bug eyes glaring. It makes me wonder, as I peer out into the darkness, looking for a place out of the wind:
             Who hurt her?


♥♥♥


             Ugh. Finally, he’s gone. Now, of course, I have to go around, wipe down all those chairs, spray them down with disinfectant. How that kid could have bent so close, I’ll never know. Then again, from what I’ve seen, college kids aren’t the most hygienic, either. There’s a frat bar out back, near where I park my car. Friday nights, those boys get right in your face, woohooing, their breath like paint thinner, piling into cars that spill out cans and fast food wrappers as soon as the door is opened. Dirty boys, dirty men.
             Everything is as clean as it’s going to get. I head out the back door, keeping my pace steady and quick. I can see that kid sitting on a barstool through the window, reading aloud from his notebook to his pals, laughing and shaking his head. Guess he wasn’t some naïve hero worshipper after all. Behind me I can feel, just like last night and every night since I’ve worked here, the man’s eyes peering out from behind the dumpster.


♥♥♥


             My luck, picking a guy with a hero complex; by the time I got out of there, I’d missed dinner on campus, had to duck into Going Postal, a bar and brewery occupying the old post office, and order a plate of wings, a PBR to wash them down. Some guys from my physics class were hanging out inside, enjoying Trivia Night. In between rounds, I pulled out my notes and entertained the crowd with the exploits of Teal Man and his current nemesis, The Lethal Librarian. Seriously, as crazy as the old man’s story was, what really creeped me out was the old lady, hovering behind the magazines, pretending to check for tears in the covers, but the leer in her eye was unmistakable. Didn’t she have anything better to do than to drool over some homeless creep and a kid young enough to be her grandson? I crack up, thinking about hooking up with such an old hag, trying to imagine someone so desperate that they would be willing to get in those elastic-waist tweed pants of hers. Through the window, I catch a glimpse of her, bent over with books, skittering like a spider to her car. A few minutes later, I see the old man, walking by like he owned the street, heading in the direction of her taillights. It starts me up again, ripping such a laugh I get a glare from the nerds, muttering over some useless bit of information. This project better get me a frickin’ A, is all I’m sayin’.


♥ End ♥



Helen R. Peterson, from Eaton Rapids, Michigan, writes poetry and fiction and is coeditor of The Waterhouse Review. Melons and Memory, her first full-length book of poetry, was published in November 2011, by Little Red Tree Press. Her work has appeared in over 100 publications, both nationally and abroad, and she has read at the Bowery Poetry Club, the Out of the Blue Gallery in Boston, and at the Walt Whitman Homestead, amongst others.


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