Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Screwhead

BY JASON ERIK LUNDBERG

I would often, when watching the cartoon series “The Tick,” wonder about a certain henchman, the one with a giant thumbscrew for a head. Not fortunate enough to warrant his own super-villain moniker, he is simply named Dean. Gifted with incredible strength used for the bidding of City crime boss Chairface Chippendale, Dean can go toe-to-toe with The Tick, bending a steel ladder around the hero’s frame, or holding him in a bear hug while other villains pummel the Great Blue Hope in the stomach. But Dean is always defeated, usually outwitted or outfoxed, because having a giant thumbscrew for a head is not really conducive to a life of intellectual rigor.

Poor Dean, I would think to myself, trapped in his muscle-bound life, unable to break out of his station by the unfortunate circumstances of his birth. But wait, what about his boss, the criminal mastermind with a chair for a head (and who loves to plot, plan, and devise whilst sitting in the most ornate and expensive chairs imaginable)? No normal head for him either, but his efforts to take over The City or carve his name into the moon are never weakened by this fact. Two men, disabled by unfortunate physical deformities, neither with a proper head, but one possesses the vast intellect of a super-villain whilst the other is relegated to his henchman? How unfair are life’s circumstances then?

What if Dean the Screwhead goes home at night to his wife, exhausted after a long day of henching, muscles aching, longing for a hot meal and a screw ha ha, and she asks him how his day was. He performs a series of hand gestures, a complicated amalgam of American Sign Language and his own communicatory system, and she has learned through many patient years how to interpret these signs, which almost always include something akin to: The Tick beat me up again today.

“Again?” she says, eyes rolling, and though Dean possesses no head, nor eyes to see, he still detects the eye-roll, the disappointed tone of her voice, the empathetic frustration. “Why don’t you just quit?”

He knows that she wants more for him and from him; she’s long given up talking about potential and dreams and something better in life, though he knows it weighs heavily on her mind. He would love to get out of the henchman business, maybe start up his own shop, a hardware store maybe. But that seems too cliché, so instead he could sell pastries. Despite his bulky frame and thick sausage fingers, Dean is an excellent pastry cook, baking up the most light and fluffy concoctions that anyone in The City has ever tasted. And he loses himself in the process of creating the dough and mixing the fillings, his anxieties evaporating with every knead and squeeze and roll. It’s the closest he’s ever felt to Heaven. The Food Network is his porn.

However, he doesn’t have enough capital to start his own business, nor the necessary job skills to do anything else. He’s big and strong and can take orders, and the one person who has seen any potential in him, other than his wife, is his current employer. No restaurant in The City would hire him as a pastry chef because of his criminal background and tendency to frighten the customers away. So he is stuck, for now, being a strongman, muscle-for-hire. Besides, he knows that Chairface won’t let him go that easily; there are thick file folders in the boss’s mansion, somewhere deep underground, only accessible through secret passageways and multi-million dollar security systems, that detail every crime each one of his henchmen has committed. He has threatened Dean twice with turning this evidence over to the FBI, knowing without a doubt that he and his chair face are clean, that none of it can be traced back to him. Dean could spend the rest of his life in prison, but Chairface would still be sitting pretty in his comfortable, exquisite chairs.

It’s not that easy, Dean signs to his wife. They’ve had this fight before, and he’s really not in the mood to get back into it after such a rough day. His right side keeps twingeing if he turns his torso the wrong way, and he fears a rib or two might be broken. His hands throb with the arthritis endemic in his profession.

“Not easy, not easy,” his wife parrots back. “You always say that! Accept some fucking responsibility for your own life!”

Dean edges past her and opens up the refrigerator, no longer patient for a hot meal, just wanting some kind of food to calm his low blood sugar and his shaking hands. Leftovers from the night before on a foil-covered plate: a leg of fried chicken, fat steak fries, bits of tomato. He removes the foil and gobbles down the food right there with the fridge door still open, leaking cold air into the apartment. Dean doesn’t let the fact that he has no mouth stop him from eating, and even I don’t know how he accomplishes this feat three times a day. Finished, he tosses the chicken bone and foil into the trash, and places the plate gently in the sink among three glasses, a bowl, and a clump of forks and spoons. His belly now full, he turns to step into the bedroom, abruptly sleepy.

“Hey,” his wife says, “I’m not done talking about this.”

He raises one hand, signs: Tired, and lurches onto the bed, the springs complaining under his weight. Unable to sleep, but unwilling to get back up and continue the argument, he just lies there, counting the bumps in the ceiling. Dean feels he has taken responsibility for his life, accepted his condition and found a career that suits him. Certainly not legal much of the time, but there are moments when it fills him with joy. Grappling with The Tick, fighting against his equal in strength, he wants to yawp from the rooftops; he no longer has to pull his punches for fear of killing his opponents, or worry whether his strength will leave someone disabled, or paralyzed, or brain-damaged. He can really let loose, and he has never known that kind of freedom before. The Tick has given him a purpose in life, and he would thank the blue bastard if he could, but he doesn’t know how. Maybe he’ll bake up some éclairs and post them anonymously.

Some time later, Dean’s wife approaches the side of the bed, looks down at her husband, sighs, and sits.

“You’re a real pain in the ass, you know.”

I know.

“I just wish that I wouldn’t have to worry about this stuff all the time.” She reaches up and caresses his thumbscrew, her fingers warm and moist on his metal.

Then don’t, he signs. Let it go. Be a leaf on the wind.

She smiles, reaches up with her other hand, and turns the thumbscrew a quarter-turn to the right. His body shudders, skin flushing, legs kicking uncontrollably for ten seconds or so. He tingles all over.

Do it again, he signs.

She does.



Jason Erik Lundberg is an American expatriate living in Singapore, and the author of The Time Traveler’s Son (Papaveria Press), Four Seasons in One Day (Two Cranes Press, with Janet Chui), and over three dozen articles and short stories. His fiction has most recently appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer, Text:UR – The New Book of Masks, The Third Alternative, Farrago’s Wainscot and Electric Velocipede, among others. He can’t get enough of teh tarik, a frothy Malaysian “pulled tea” served at volcanic temperatures and sweetened with condensed milk. His website can be found at jasonlundberg.net.