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Godlessby Pete Hautman
In the beginning was the Ocean. And the Ocean was alone.
Getting punched hard in the face is a singular experience. I highly recommend it to anyone who is a little too cocky, obnoxious, or insensitive. I also recommend it to people who think they're smart enough to avoid getting punched in the face by the likes of Henry Stagg.
I was all those things the day Shin (real name: Peter Stephen Schinner) and I ran into Henry beneath the water tower. Henry was in the company of three lesser juvenile delinquents — Mitch Cosmo, Marsh Andrews, and Bobby Something-or-Other. None of the four were particularly dangerous one-on-one, but in a pack? That was different.
"Hey, Henry, how's it going?" I said, striving for the sort of gruff heartiness I imagined he might respect.
"Who's that? Is that Jay-boy and Schinner?" Henry squinted ferociously, his face scrunched into a hard little knot. He was wearing his usual getup: beat-up cowboy boots, jeans, and a black T-shirt. "What're you guys doing here?"
"Just hangin' out," I said. I wasn't about to tell Henry what we were really doing there.
"With each other? You guys must be desperate," he said. Then he laughed. Bobby, Mitch, and Marsh all laughed too. The three stooges. Watching Henry as if he were the most fascinating thing they'd ever seen.
I have to admit, Henry Stagg is an interesting specimen. He's only about five-foot-five and scrawny as a wild cat, but Henry has presence. He's twitchy, cobra-quick, and wound up so tight you just know something has to give. Henry has a history of sudden, unprovoked violence. That makes him both dangerous and exciting company. Fortunately — or so I thought — Henry and I had always gotten along just fine. That might have had something to do with the fact that I'm twice his size. Also, I figured I could outthink him any day of the week.
"Could be worse," I said. "We could be hanging out with you guys." I laughed to make sure he knew I was kidding, which I wasn't.
Henry gave me a neutral scowl. "So how come you're hangin' out here?"
"We're working on a science project," Shin said in his Shinny voice. I groaned silently. I've gotten used to Shin's somewhat high-pitched, nasal voice, but it sends a guy like Henry right up the wall.
"A science project?" Henry said, lifting his voice to a quavering falsetto. "I thought fags were only interested in hairdressing and ballet."
"I'm not a fag," Shin said, his voice rising even higher. And I thought, Uh-oh.
"Not a fag?" Henry piped, raising his arms to display his knobby hands hanging slack from the ends of his wrists.
Shin, realizing that he was headed for trouble, crossed his arms over his notebook and went into his shell. More about that later. Henry capered in front of him, hopping from toe to toe, chanting, "I'm not a fag I'm not a fag I'm not a fag..." Shin just stood frozen, staring at the ground. Henry dropped his arms and walked up to him and stuck his face a few inches from Shin's and shouted, "Anybody home?"
Shin said nothing. Henry's jaw muscles flexed and the veins on his neck throbbed. Shin didn't even blink. When he went into his shell you couldn't pry him out if you stuck a firecracker in his ear. Not until he was ready.
arHenry looked at me. "What's the matter with him?"
"Nothing," I said.
"Hit him," said Bobby. "Give him one."
The stooges laughed as if Bobby had said something witty.
Henry glared at them. Beneath it all, Henry had his rules. It wasn't his style to hit someone who was, say, unconscious. He wouldn't beat up a little kid, or an old lady — at least not without just cause. And he could sense that Shin, in his shell, was just as helpless.
"Push him over," Marsh suggested. "See if he, like, tips."
Henry put his palm against Shin's chest and gave a little test shove. Shin teetered, but his internal gyroscope kept him erect. Henry realized that a more aggressive push would topple Shin, but he decided not to do it.
"What's the matter with him?" Henry asked me again.
"He just gets that way sometimes."
Marsh said, "He must be, like, some kinda, like, freak."
"He's not a freak," I said, knowing that Shin was hearing everything.
Henry shifted his attention to me.
"You guys are both freaks. Look at you. How much do you weigh?"
"One ninety-four," I said, taking my standard thirty-pound deduction.
"I bet you weigh two hundred and fifty. You're huge."
I wanted to say something like, To a Munchkin like you, everybody must look huge. But I just looked back at him.
Then my head exploded.
At least that's what it felt like. I never saw the blow coming. His fist took me high on my left cheek, and the next instant I was laid out flat, wet grass soaking my back, staring up past Henry Stagg's florid knot of a face at the belly of the water tower, silver against blue sky. In the background I could hear the three stooges laughing, and I could taste blood where Henry's hard knuckles had smashed my cheek against my teeth, but mostly I was looking up at that enormous silver tank.
"It felt like an earthquake when you hit," Henry said, leaning over me. He was smiling happily, his face as relaxed as I'd ever seen it. Somehow I knew that he would not hit me again, at least not on that particular day. Whatever demon had been controlling him was temporarily sedated. We were safe.
But I have to explain myself. I have to explain why I didn't jump to my feet and pound the little creep into the ground. You might think it was because he had his friends to back him up, but that wasn't it. I'm not even sure they'd have done anything. The three stooges were bored and stupid and all they wanted was a little jolt of adrenaline. It didn't matter to them who got beat up — me, Henry, Shin, or any one of them.
The real reason I didn't jump all over Henry is quite simple, and I'm not ashamed to admit it: He scares the crap out of me.
I outweigh Henry Stagg by a good eighty pounds, I'm six inches taller, I'm coordinated, and I'm fast. I can grab a fly out of midair. I could take a guy like Henry any day of the week. But Henry has something I don't have.
Henry doesn't care what happens to Henry.
And that is why he can punch me in the face and get away with it.
Staring up at him, I could see it in his eyes. Henry didn't care. I could have thrown him against the tower's steel pillar and beat his head to a bloody pulp and that would have been okay with Henry. He'd just keep on swinging those hard, knobby fists, laying on the cuts and bruises and pain until I beat him unconscious, and he wouldn't care one bit. But I would. I'd care a lot. And that was Henry's power.
I respect power. Even in the hands of such as Henry Stagg.
Say you were walking down the street at night and you ran into me and Shin. Here is what you would see: two figures, dark and menacing. One is large-bodied, hulking, and neckless. That would be me. The other is thin, loose-jointed, with hair sticking out in every direction. That's Shin. If you are extremely observant, you will notice that Shin and I are the same height. Most people think I am taller, but I'm not. I'm just bigger.
Look closer now, as we come into the cone of light cast by a streetlamp. Shin is the one with the long fingers wrapped around a spiral-bound, nine-by-twelve-inch sketchbook. He is never without it. I'm the one with fat lips, freckles, and twelve dark hairs growing between my eyebrows. Like I'm half ape. Do you know who Orson Welles is? I look a little like Orson Welles. If you don't know who he is, then, never mind. Just think of me as the big, fat, pouty one.
We met in a computer workshop when we were ten years old. I was the smartest kid there, and Shin was the second smartest. That's according to a formula I devised based on knowledge of X-Men trivia, Game Boy performance, and the ability to lie with a straight face to the teachers. I was better at lying and X-Men, but Shin could out-game me.
Shin and I collaborated on a comic book that summer. We called it Void. It was about a bunch of guys fighting aliens on a planet where all the buildings were intelligent and all the plants had teeth. I drew the people, aliens, and plants. Shin would draw the buildings, machines, and cyborgs. My drawings were always full of drama and action; Shin was into the details.
Inevitably, we became best friends.
There are times, though, when I wish Shin was not who he is. His interest in invertebrates, for instance, can be embarrassing at times.
The day Henry Stagg flattened me beneath the water tower we were hunting snails, or "pods," as Shin likes to call them. That's short for gastropods, which is what you call slugs and snails if you are a science nerd like Shin. He had built himself a terrarium — he calls it a gastropodarium — and was looking to populate it with an assortment of slimers.
In case you're wondering, the reason we were looking for snails under the water tower (instead of someplace else) was because snails like moisture. It had been a dry summer, and the ground beneath the tower is always moist from the dripping tank. It wasn't really a science project. Shin just said that because he thinks science is sacred. He invokes science as if it were the name of God. Like it should be sacred to Henry, too.
Everything makes sense once you understand it.
Anyway, I was just glad that we'd run into Henry before we found any snails. That would have been bad. Henry probably would have made Shin eat them. Escargot, sushi style.
The reason I'm going on about Henry Stagg and snails is because that particular incident was a turning point in my life — one of those magic moments where suddenly the way you see the world changes forever. That's the other reason I didn't jump up and pound the crap out of the little monkey: I was busy having a religious experience.
I was flat on my back looking up past Henry at the silver, dripping bottom of the water tower tank, my head still scrambled, when it hit me just how important that tower was to St. Andrew Valley. It was the biggest thing in town. Water from that tower was piped to every home and business for miles around. The water connected all of us. It kept us alive.
That was when I came up with the idea of the water tower being God.
"Water is Life," I said, staring up at its silver magnificence.
Henry, shaking his head, walked away, saying, "You guys are both whacko."
Copyright © 2004 by Pete Hautman
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