The Astonishing Suburban Adventures of Kill Barrow, Wheelbarrow of Doom ◊ Part 2

Read part 1 of “Kill Barrow” here to catch up.

8

I confined myself to my home yet again.

I tried dialing up the old number of the caseworker that had been assigned to me, only to find that the line was dead when I tried to pick up the phone. No buzz tone, nothing. After much hair pulling and after nearly ripping up most of the house, I discovered one thing: that the line had been cut. Outside. Probably by some pesky neighbourhood kids, but you never could be sure. I guess I could have done it when I’d blacked out. Who the hell knows?

I never wound up getting the problem fixed in those final days, incidentally. I thought that as long as the government kept mysteriously cutting me a cheque, I would be happy. Granted, thinking about that made me worry. It seemed pretty logical to me that it would have been the next thing that could go wrong: the withholding of my paycheque by one of the mechanisms of bureaucracy.

Of course, life was busy making other plans for yours truly.

9

Some guy from the Comics Journal came around not long after my beating from the Authority wanting to do an exclusive interview. He claimed that he found out about me after I’d been mysteriously spotted in the neighbourhood — no mention being made of anyone “mysteriously” spotting me in the area for the past 25 years. Obviously, the Feds had done good work, real good work, in keeping my whereabouts unknown. Yep. First Mr. Assertive moved into my neck of the woods, and the next thing you know, the whole street was crawling with cub reporters.

In any event, the kid dithered on about how it would be a privilege to interview Kill Barrow, Wheelbarrow of Doom, and he said it with that wide-eyed manga look that fanboys all get. I know that look. It’s the look I get whenever I catch a glimpse of a store clerk changing the bottom half of a female mannequin inside a woman’s clothing store.

“I have absolutely no fucking goddamn clue what you’re talking about, kid,” I said.

I then threw the door shut in his face.

I wondered as I watched the kid slink back dejectedly into the street that, maybe if I had been a better man, a nicer guy, I could have directed him across the way. Now there was an interview subject worthy of a 2,000-word feature: a former hero living all alone, with nary a woman around him, in the suburbs — not some posh downtown apartment like Superman or something. Nope. And if Mr. Assertive wanted that kind of fame and accolade, then he damn well deserved it. Me, on the other hand, I never deserved to be that important.

In any event, I guess it wouldn’t matter much. The kid probably went back, interviewed a few writers and illustrators, then filed some sort of revisionist piece about how evil people were cool again. How they could be anywhere, really. Living next door to you, sitting beside you on an airplane. How to spot them, reveal the peace and goddamn quiet that your everyday garden-variety villain so craves.

As I took another drink of whiskey from the same unwashed glass, I also wondered to myself how it was that kids these days knew way too much about obscure bullshit.

Way too much obscure bullshit.

There is way too much goddamn pop culture in this world. That’s what I think.

10

Not long after this intrusion on my peace of mind, I started to get acquainted and comfortable with my basement for the first time in a long time. Call it a retreat from the trials and intrusions of the world, if you’d like, but, for me, it was an opportunity to start to pick the tools that I’d use to finish the job that I needed to start: offing Mr. Assertive. Basements, I came to learn during this brief period, were an exquisite lair for evil. One could even argue the same for garages, too, I suppose. They’re dark, dank places where every young villain — from high school shooters to shoe bombers — cut their teeth, got their start concocting all sorts of weaponry out of pipes and various chemicals that could explode when heated.

First of all, I had to truly get back in touch with my old, nefariously evil self. This much I knew to be true. I had to figure out a way to turn myself into a killer wheelbarrow and become an instrument of complete and utter evil. I had to become the monster I once was. And to figure that out, I knew I had to do a little bit of research, look through the old family photo albums as it were.

By that I mean the first — and only — three issues of Amazing Workplace Stories.

It took me awhile to find them, as they’d been burrowed away at the bottom of a cardboard box, one that had been strangely stuffed with all sorts of old tax return records going back to 1992. I discovered it, finally, by looking within a cubbyhole underneath the steps leading into the basement. I was a bit dismayed to learn that the old comics had been covered in dust, significantly yellowed, and had been dotted with rat droppings, as well. Putting them in that comic-book plastic bag might have been a great idea for their own self-preservation, since these were, of course, the only real “baby pictures” of me that I had.

It was a pretty painful experience, going through those old relics.

Flip. There I was, getting all bent out of shape. Flip, flip. That’s me killing all those people so non-proactively. Flip, flip, flip, flip. Mr. Assertive had me by the wheelbarrow handles, spinning me around, about me send me flying off to God knows where. Flip, flip, flip, flip, flip. Oh, there was that stupid advertisement for a government safety brochure that nobody even remembers. God, I looked so poorly drawn. I looked like I was hung over.

Hmmm. Maybe some things never changed?

As I wandered through my past life, remembering battles lost and lost as I went through the pages, I wondered whatever happened to my creators. You know, the artists and writers who actually sat down and had the time to put these three tattered, forgotten issues together. All that I know about them for a certainty is that, unlike me, they’ve at least physically aged. They don’t stand still in a kind of suspended animation like I do. They don’t wander the earth as though they’ve been Botoxed with carbonite, either. In fact, I don’t think any of them went on to doing any further comics ever again.

I was rudely interrupted by another knock on the front door.

“Who the hell is it?” I yelled.

Another knock answered.

I sighed, cursing myself if not my predicament, as I abandoned my comics and worked my way back up the stairs. When I got to the top of the stairs, I was able to spy from my little fish-eyed lens behind the door a man. A man with thick, black horn-rimmed glasses. A man smoking what appeared to be a corn-cob pipe. A man in a really awful, loud tweed business jacket.

My rival? I wondered. Well, show me my rival.

I turned the doorknob to the right, swung the gate into my lair open and pounced on the man with right fist extended. My goal? Take down my bully, my own personal villain that I knew as … .

11

The guy I lunged at turned out to be my car insurance agent. I’m not lying about any of this. The bastard, despite our troubles in the parking lot, was obviously trying to rook me into buying some kind of new policy. All I got for my trouble was a pulled muscle in my right leg, not to mention needless worry about the dude — who fled the scene frightened out of his wits without saying a word — snitching to the cops on me.

Damn cops, they’re always sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong. I actually fell asleep one night from a pub-crawl in the early ’90s and wound up waking up in someone else’s bushes with a cop and a paramedic standing over me. Insert any jokes about that being a sobering experience, if you will. God knows it’s not like an editor hasn’t tried to do that already. (Ed.’s note: Please refer to AWS, Vol. 1, Issue 2.)

At some point, I retreated into my basement, my lair, determined to never come out of there ever again. Without a butler or the latest weapons/gadgets, it might as well have become my own private jail cell. At some point, it dawned on me that I was becoming a wandering protagonist. I was becoming a protagonist without much direction, or at least much point to exist. Who wants to read a story in which bad things happen to the central character, let alone a character that ambles in and out of situations without moving things forward? Probably about as many people who want to read a detective story about an unsolvable case, or, perhaps, the world’s most useless comic book villain ever. And yet such is the lives of many of those who sit down to write their life story, thinly disguised as it might be through one’s fiction or a comic book. It’s funny how ordinary people can do the most extraordinary things.

Sitting in a chair I’d salvaged from someone else’s garage sale, I brooded. I sorted through the arsenal of broken records that I’d collected from the backyard and moved down into the basement for no other reason that it seemed like the best place to dump it until I decided what was best to do with them.

An idea suddenly came to me. A horribly malicious idea, and one that would allow me to finally get my revenge on the neighbour living across the street. It was such a good idea, at least to me at the time.

Strange how, sometimes, these things look great only when you’re living in the moment.

12

So here it is, my brilliant idea:

I was going to bomb Mr. Assertive out of his house.

It was a scheming idea. Most of all, it had the hallmarks of a Kill Barrow attack written all over it: it was easy. Building a bomb can be a simple thing — if you know what you’re doing. Every decent person knows you can find some nice recipes on the Internet.

It took me a while, believe me, working straight through an entire day and night to be sure the compounds I was using were just right. (Okay, and I was drinking while I was putting it together. I’m surprised I didn’t blow the house up or something.) But, in the end, I had something that wasn’t too far removed from one of those big, black minesweeping bombs that you see in comic books. It was a nice one, with a nice, reasonably long fuse attached to it. All it would take would be for me to cross the street at night, light the sucker, throw the thing like a Molotov Cocktail and run.

Of course, I had a little problem.

I just couldn’t wait for nightfall.

Nope.

I wound up taking the thing over in the early morning.

In retrospect, this wasn’t the most intelligent way of doing my dirty work. But what can I say? I was excited. The fire in my belly was back. I was going to be at my most devious. This was what I was meant to do, this was what I was meant to be. Kill Barrow, Wheelbarrow of … !

I’m sure at this point anyone with a brain in their cranium might suppose what happened to me.

One minute, I was crossing the street, making a special delivery.

The next, I had been transformed:

I’d become a wheelbarrow.

And as for the bomb? Oh, it went off, believe me. Despite having no visible eyes or ears or anything, I was still able to sense the world just as I would if I were a warm-blooded human being. (It’s one of those things they never explain away about comics, anyway, how a superhero or a villain might perceive the world differently with a cape around his back or a spider suit around his body.) After feeling myself turn cold, metallic and stationary, the bomb merely fell without grace from my side: it simply bounced down the street to its logical end. In fact, it went off like a firecracker doused in water, which is to say that it didn’t really go off at all. It kind of just fizzled out on the pavement and then did nothing.

Everything was kind of silent for a while, except for the hissing of lawn sprinkles, a dog barking somewhere in the distance, a plane flying overhead. Then, when I thought it was all truly over, Mr. Assertive turned and opened the front door to his home from the inside. He holding onto a cordless phone and wearing nothing but a bathrobe.

So quietly and suburban-like.

13

Thus ends the tale of how I became permanently stuck as a wheelbarrow. God knows I’ve tried to turn back. Perhaps not hard enough, one could argue. But those days are behind me, over with. It’s not that I’ve had it with being the villain. It’s just that my resistance has been broken. Still, I live up to a new moral code: my own. Which is probably what I wanted anyway.

Maybe that was the whole point of all of those random scattered events leading up to my change? You know, a bunch of things that were meant to mean nothing outside their context, things that I tried to pull together into some sort of meaning that the world was out to get me. I don’t know. I’m always the last one to know or figure things out, which probably is a good reason why I was such a poor villain.

Not that it matters much anymore. I reside now in a happy home — a garage, actually — and haven’t felt this clean, this sober. Masters was even kind enough to remove the circular saw blade and replace it with a regular wheel. I now feel so strangely good, oddly enough. I enjoy rolling around in the mud, dirt and grime, getting my wheel dirty. There’s something oddly comforting, sort of like taking your shoes off as a human, and going running through an open field barefoot.

I’ve spent the past season being wheeled around Masters’ front and backyards throughout, carrying nothing but a load of goodwill on my back: Bricks for a backyard fire-pit, soil for a garden. I must say that it is a relatively peaceful life.

I think I can appreciate the old saying, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” a lot better now.

There are a lot of loose ends to my story, things I still haven’t figured out. In fact, I’m feeling a little bit like how I did after the comic got cancelled mid-stream: part of the audience, left hanging, unimportant, unsure what had just happened or was about to happen next. In fact, I feel as though I’d been wasting my time: that I’d tuned into some TV show that would be forgotten about and perhaps even left unresolved. (Unless, of course, it met with a DVD or cable afterlife or got memorialized and canonized on some fan’s Web site. As I said earlier, there is just way too much damn pop culture in the world to care about.)

Real life — as I’m only now just finding, all these years later — doesn’t seem to have that two dimensionality of the comic book universe. There is no pure good or no pure evil: just very confusing shades of gray. And that’s when there are any shades to speak of, any pieces of the puzzle that can solve the major mysteries in your life. Maybe horrible, terrible, nonsensical things just happen.

But even though I’m a mere wheelbarrow, a mere tool, this isn’t the end of Kill Barrow. Of this, I’m sure. Even though someone has gone and put a For Sale sign on my front lawn, and the entire front face of my (former) home has been defaced with various colours and brands of spray-paint, I figure I’m just deferring or delaying the next conflict with Mr. Assertive.

I will become Will Barrow once more.

And, maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll get things right next time.

* * * * *

Zachary Houle lives in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, where he works for the federal government as a Project Officer and is also an Associate Music Reviews editor for PopMatters.com, a pop culture webzine that reaches 1.2 million unique visitors a month. He also contributes regular book and music reviews to PopMatters. Houle has been awarded a $4,000 emerging artist grant from the City of Ottawa to write fiction, and was a Pushcart Prize nominee for a novella that appeared in Midnight Mind. His fiction or poetry has also appeared in places such as Broken Pencil, Word Riot, Pindeldyboz, Kiss Machine, The Danforth Review, Girls with Insurance, Thieves Jargon, Friction magazine, Megaera, and many others. His poem “Ode to the Long Lost Mini-Pops Album” was published in the book anthology In Our Own Words, Vol. 7 (MW Enterprises, 2007).

Read his contributions to Snake-Oil Cure here.

The Astonishing Suburban Adventures of Kill Barrow, Wheelbarrow of Doom ◊ Part 1

0: The Origin Story

My name is William Barrow, and I am now a recovering comic book villain. Most of you have never heard of me, and perhaps this is a good thing. I’m pretty lame. My power involved being able to transform myself from an ordinary, simple construction worker into a lethal killing machine. More aptly put, I can transform myself into a wheelbarrow. But here’s the punch line: the wheel of the wheelbarrow would be a circular saw.

I was Kill Barrow, Wheelbarrow of Doom, and, man, nobody has to ever tell me that I sucked.

I guess it’d be bad enough if I were a villain from a failed line of comics: something rejected by DC or Marvel, something created by some third-rate, amateur comic book ‘zinester. Instead, I’m a Geek trapped in Charles Bukowski’s body. Or maybe I’m a drunk Fred MacMurray, the very personification of a shaggy dog story. At least someone modeled Captain Marvel, a comic book hero, after MacMurray in the ’40s. Me? I’m nobody important. In fact, I’m actually quite surprised at how many people haven’t forgotten about me.

But for those who have, I’m a villain from a series of comic books produced by the Federal Government during the early ’70s, a character in the woefully named Amazing Workplace Stories. This was a comic book series about the need for mongoloid workers to pay closer attention to on-the-job safety. All the stories were all about day-to-day things that could lead to workplace accidents. Poor safety practices, sour emotions and hostile work environments — you know the drill. Or, in case you don’t get it, I was little more than a goddamn example for people who should know better than to stand in a puddle of water while working with electricity.

Amazing Workplace Stories was utter junk from the get-go, a two-dimensional concept that wasted both the space and time of dim-witted adults, dreamt up by a bunch of hippie utopianists who got their hands on some government dough, and were just doodling around one day. In fact, I guess I was supposed to be part of an alternate universe that was seemingly good for you, something that taught people how to make good choices and be safe in the workplace. If you ask me, they would have been better off sending government representatives into the workplace, and having them teach employees to act out the Schartz-Metterklume method of workplace safety.

Like most things that government puts out, the comic was amazingly horrible, despite their best intentions. Amazing Workplace Stories wasn’t just the sort of non-challenging Big Mac of comic books that art snobs would turn their noses up at; it was the package that you threw away before eating the Big Mac: lots of fiber, but of a kind that’s otherwise inedible and totally useless. For all the good intentions behind informing a market of adult laborers, one could look at my “skill” at transformation and conclude that I was probably about as unskilled and incompetent as the people I was being held up as an example to. I might as well have been a blind man leading the blind.

I guess it is little wonder that I was scripted to kill 19 people in the series’ first issue when I cut loose and discovered my “super” power. In a rather idiotic storyline, my saw blade hadn’t been properly sharpened, which tripped up a construction site goon and prevented him from being able to transport a crate of dynamite away from a bridge construction site fast enough. (Editor’s note: See Amazing Workplace Stories, Vol. 1, Issue 1). Don’t ask. I didn’t write it. I was merely some writer’s plaything, at least at the time.

Precisely for all the by-now obvious reasons, the comic was pretty much a three-issue done deal. Obviously, nobody paid much attention to the series, and when the government money ran out, there was no need for me. Thank God. It spared me the humiliation of having to face the public again. It was a good thing, too, for the last issue left off with me to fight with Mr. Assertive, the mighty leader of the League of Responsible Worker Behavior. What a shithead! This dude always came into battle looking for a win-win and somehow always got it. I should have known walking into that one that I’d wind up being the loser.

I know that you probably aren’t wondering about it, and couldn’t otherwise give a fuck, but the so-called showdown between me and Assertive was left unresolved. Instead of being the win-win situation he was always looking for, the whole situation turned out to be one great big stalemate, an end-game looking for its checkmate. The fourth issue never got picked up, probably because nobody really cared. All of us, both superheroes and super-villains together, were left with fragments of our pathetic selves to be boxed and put away in various corners of the country by a government too ashamed to admit that we existed.

Since then, I’ve been in the Fed’s Comic Book Villain Relocation program, trying to live down the past. I live in the suburbs — I was moved there during the early ’80s after one drunken incident involving a prostitute, the final straw for my government keepers. I was “positioned” here in the hopes that I would somehow mingle with all of the boring suburbanites, and become a new man. Here, in the ‘burbs, I instead got to play a new role: the creepy drunk guy living alone in the bungalow at the end of the street. The guy who never works, never ages, never grows up — the guy with the sailor’s mouth. I spent so much time spending my monthly allowance in the local Liquor Barn, which I can get away with thanks to a loophole in the Comic Book Code dating back to 1971, I could almost be living and working there. I guess that’s why I’m now persona non grata over there: stick around any longer and they’d have to hire me.

Locked in a weird sort of permanent adolescence, I played this role for the longest time because it seemed to me that the Feds were still trying to figure out what I might be good at. Hell, at one point, I figured that I might keep playing it at least until their copyright on me ran out in maybe 40 more years. Until the day my nemesis arrived in the ‘hood, I was still trying to figure out what I was good at — besides drinking and masturbating all day to the Catholic schoolgirls that walk by my house and whom I can never obtain, of course. I couldn’t hold down a job, I’m almost ashamed to show my face in public. When I do, I try to act normally. My sole reason for stepping outside into the world is pretty much limited to the grocery store. I live the life Bukowski would have loved to have, if he were still alive, except I do it on a government cheque. I suppose this might make the whole experience a little on the inauthentic side.

Still, it used to be a pretty good existence, living and working on my own. It’s not like I had another choice. Can you imagine what would happen if I took on some office job and accidentally turned myself into a lethal wheelbarrow? Can you imagine how our leaders at the highest reaches of power would they be able to explain to the people what a comic book villain was doing being subsidized on taxpayers’ money, living marginalized in detached tract housing on the edge of one of the biggest cities?

My situation could be worse, I suppose, so I had nothing to complain about. I could have been The Human Shovel, a guy who dug his own grave way too early. (Ed.’s note: AWS, Vol. 1, Issue 2.) That’s another story altogether, though. This story is mine, it belongs to me and me alone and it begins as it did in the comics: with great big sound effects in brightly-coloured, hippy-dippy word balloons.

It begins like this:

1

Fuck!

Shit!

It was him. I could tell.

I watched like a voyeur from my kitchen window, peeking through the horizontal plastic blinds that I bought recently with yet another government cheque. Across the street, a moving truck was unloading its cargo. I count off the possessions as they’re moved off the truck, carried by professional movers. There was a fog machine and cartons of broken records — two weapons in the traditional arsenal belonging to my old nemesis.

The one, the only.

And then, like a goddamn policeman directing traffic into his apartment, Mr. Assertive himself finally appeared. Sure, he was without his trademark flaming red cape with the distinctive fist-like logo emblazoned on his chest, but, Christ, it was him all right. He was dressed smartly in a tweed jacket, smoking a pipe, directing the movers into the house across the street, one of those semi-detached units. He, like me, hadn’t aged a single day, but there he was, acting all suave and mature-like, like a grown-up playing house. He, also like me, did not appear to have a wife or kids. He was still a loner, which is the role most heroes and villains wind up playing. All the popular people, after all, somehow wind up meeting somewhere in the middle (class).

I felt as though I could kick myself. It was as though I’d willed the bastard into being, that this was something I’d secretly wanted. Maybe I’d secretly wanted him to reappear. It was like being in a parking lot of a crowded supermarket, looking for a damn space to park your car to open up. Through the act of expectation, one invariably will supposedly appear, but only if you’re being positive enough that someone is about to move out in front of you. Me? I generally have an unfortunate tendency to get into fender benders.

Still, I had to wonder. There had been this huge void in my life. I felt utterly useless, like I didn’t have a purpose, now that I was sucking money from the public purse. And here he was: my purpose. My sole reason for existing.

I went to the sink, grabbed a dirty shot glass and poured myself some rum. I scratched my stubble, and then wondered to myself: what the fuck did a guy have to do to live a completely peaceful and quiet life in the suburbs?

The morning paper was on the kitchen table. There was a story about some chick gunning down a post office. Now there was a twist.

One that gave me some ideas.

Much needed ideas.

Hmmmmm, said my furrowed brow as the whiskey made a conversation with the happy receptors of my brain. A plan began to formulate. An evil, devious plan.

I would have laughed manically, and started rubbing my hands in the way that they do only in cartoons. The only problem was that this was real life, and I’d somehow found myself tumbling towards the black-and-white squares of the linoleum. Tripped up by my own two feet, which now resembled a saw blade. This was something that hadn’t happened to me in years.

I shielded myself from the blow of my latest mortal enemy.

Gravity.

Who would have thought? I thought as my new friend, the ground, rose up to punch me in the head.

Ka-pow!

2

I went through his trash one night. I found exactly what I was looking for, right out there in his blue box. Shredded moving carton invoices that I went back to my kitchen and put together with Scotch … tape.

A name emerged. A hero.

Bob Masters.

Aha! So that was his assumed identity. He was so careless.

I sneaked off across the street with this crucial little detail, back to the back door of my house. Back to the camera, a vintage Pentax K-1000 I’d bought cheap from a pawn shop, that I’d set up by the kitchen window, my private Xanadu. The next time he reappeared, I’d shoot him. I’d get a good shot, and compare it against the back issues of Amazing Workplace Stories.

Every first step must begin with a plan. So from behind a kitchen window, I waited. I plotted.

Hours passed by. Days even. Many drinks were consumed, and perhaps one could say that I was consumed by my own curiosity. My finger rested on the camera trigger, waiting for the most opportune moment. Me, I was the imagined Lee Harvey Oswald of shutterbugs.

Who’d be the Superman now, huh? I thought, pacing the living room with glee.

3

It took the photo lab at the local Wal-Mart precisely 58 minutes to develop my roll of film, despite the fact that there were maybe only five shots on it. I took the developed photos out of its plastic packaging while walking to the parking lot, and was startled to see that I’d placed my thumb over part of the camera lens on at least three of the shots, and the other shots were either a bit dark or blurry. You could see in one of the photos what appeared to be a suburban housewarming party happening through the front window. There were lots of bodies and motion, but not a whole lot else. No clear view of Mr. Assertive. In fact, there wasn’t even a clear view of Mr. Assertive or his various goings-on imprinted on the negative of my memory. Everything, aside from bits and scraps of data, were just blurs. No data.

I simmered out of the parking lot of the Wal-Mart, secretly hoping I wouldn’t turn into a wheelbarrow, like I’d nearly done the day before.

Backing out of the parking lot, I was jostled from my thoughts by whiplash and a very loud thump!  Damn, I’d hit another car. Nobody was hurt, which turned out to be a very bad thing when my insurance broker happened to be the guy who got out of the afflicted car.

My hands gripped the steering wheel to prevent my middle finger from doing any talking.

Believe me, restraint is a superpower, one that I’m often incapable of.

Anyhow, after my not-so-nice encounter with the insurance agent, in which I decided to let a bunch of goddamn f-bombs fly, I decided to scrap the camera and all the brooding by the window. I figured that it was time to take action. It was time to stop being a two-cent private eye, and start being the Bad Guy. I could let nobody push me around. I needed to be more assertive somehow, just like — .

Cripes, there had to be a contradiction in there.

I took a Pabst Blue Ribbon from the fridge — a choice of beverage clearly influenced by the Hipster Handbook — and took a seat on the living room couch that was broken in two spots underneath. I took a quick scan of my surroundings and began to really understand how trapped in the ’70s I was. A tacky Coolidge print, one of the famous ones with the dogs, hung crooked on the wall. The basement was all done up in badly water-damaged wood paneling. I used to have a pin-up on the wall, but the Comic Books Authority paid me a visit in the late ’80s and had me take it down.

Eventually, I bolted the front door. I locked it real tight. Then, I called the Liquor Barn Home Delivery Service and placed myself a good order that eventually involved two nice young men coming to my front door with various cartons of booze.

I had motivations for my actions; I had a long night ahead of me, after all. Thinking. Drinking. Defending myself against one of my rogue’s gallery of enemies: if not Mr. Assertive, then mainly myself.

4

I had a dream once after Mr. Assertive’s arrival in my ‘hood. I dreamt that I’d turned myself into a wheelbarrow: an ordinary wheelbarrow, one without the circular saw blade as a wheel. That wasn’t the worst of it, though. Mr. Assertive was using me for some diabolical do-good purpose. My rubber wheel, at times, threatened to go flat as it hopped and skipped over all sorts of sharp pebbles and bent-out-of-shape nails. Merrily, I was pushed along. I began to panic, but there weren’t, naturally, any brakes to be applied. And thus, Mr. Assertive pushed me around a housing rebuild project.

In real life, it isn’t in the guy’s nature to do that. Normally, he’d just stare me down and try to convince me with stern words what the consequences of my actions might be if I continue on with my super-villainy reign of terror. You know, usual schtick like, “I feel that it would be best for both of us if you … blah blah blah.”

That’s how I knew it was a dream.

I woke up bathed in sweat, a common enough cliché in both comic books and popular entertainment. At least, I didn’t wake up transformed like I did one time not long after the comic book got canned. I had a hell of a time getting out of bed that day. It had taken me a good half-day to get retransformed and get back on track, which, it turned out, wasn’t such a horrible thing because I don’t have too much time on my hands to begin with.

After taking a shit, shower and shave — maybe in that order, maybe not — I poured myself a gin and tonic, and then went back to my window. I was watching and waiting for the world to end.

It certainly beat the alternative: Pretending that someone else was the bad guy.

5

After sitting around for days in my kitchen doing little else but getting acquainted with another friend of mine named Jack Daniels, I decided that I needed to take action. If I couldn’t find the adequate help in dealing with the problem, maybe it was best to deal with the problem entirely by myself.

A quick break-and-enter into the high school chemistry lab on a Friday night, along with some old church basements and garage sales the next morning, yields exactly what I’m looking for: a smoke machine and a bunch of cracked Nana Mouskouri records in a milk crate peppered with other lame leftovers from the ’70s.

So it was a little cheesy. So what? I am the cheese. I wanted to make a statement, and, in doing so, I hoped to defeat Mr. Assertive using weapons that were symbolic of his skills. I planned to go into his house, unleashing the fog from the dry ice. Once he was utterly confused and disoriented, I’d tie him up and whip sharp-edged broken records at him like ninja stars. It’d be the perfect crime. It was such a great plan, such a calculating cruel plan — one that would finally do away with the unwanted guest now living across the street from me. Finally, Mr. Assertive would be the insult that made a man out of Kill Barrow, Wheelbarrow of Doom!

Of course, I knew that this also meant that I’d have to eventually sneak into his lair, map out the floor plan as to know all the potential booby-traps and secret exits. But first things first: I needed to train myself, get myself into tip-top shape. Lose the beer belly. Perfect my throwing technique. Become a Charles Atlas. Cue the Rocky montage to awful ’80s music and all that.

Actually, I whistled Gotta Fly Now as I went about my business, turning my backyard into a de facto training ground. Thank God my neighbours on three sides had either had built fences or grown hedgerows, which helped obscure other people’s view of my backyard. Nobody would see me. Nobody would care.

I went out back and brought the records out into the backyard with me. As soon as I stepped out into the great outdoors, I could feel a tingle of excitement beginning to build within me — something that had been missing for years and years. I was no longer a hapless drunkard; I was a man on a mission. I was going to be the one who would stop Assertive in his tracks and put all out aggression and evil on the map.

Of course, it didn’t exactly turn out that way.

I don’t know how it happened, but as soon as I hooked up the smoke machine I started to feel dizzy. Gravity, once again, called its name to me, wanted to wrap its arms around my suddenly spinning head.

Gravity held me back as I — .

6

… zzzzz …

7

When I came to, I felt as though I were missing something in my upper deck. It was as though I’d found myself wedged between the spaces of two comic book panels, fallen into some deep, dark Phantom Zone that I couldn’t get out of. Perhaps I’d slept through an entire 24 pages’ worth of action?

I looked up to the sky. Nobody in a cape flew by. Life was still good, I surmised.

Then, of course, I looked down.

There were tiny lines all throughout the backyard, as though someone had gone through the yard with a small tiller, churning up bits and pieces of dirt. Clumps of grassy sod had been sprayed everywhere, without much rhyme or reason. Bits and pieces of smoke bellowed through the clods of grass, turning my back yard into a miniature Bellona. Chunks of broken records were scattered like confetti, shards of black kryptonite, fragments of a bad idea.

This was damage done by me, to myself.

I guess I did all I could do under the circumstances: I left my mess, my plans, and all of my ambitions. I merely picked myself up, went into the house and called the Liquor Barn.

It was clearly time to go back to the drawing board, clearly time to just get wasted again. Never underestimate the power of alcohol to make you smarter. That’s what I always say.

Stay tuned for part 2 of “Kill Barrow, Wheelbarrow of Doom” on Friday at 12 noon EST.

* * * * *

Zachary Houle lives in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, where he works for the federal government as a Project Officer and is also an Associate Music Reviews editor for PopMatters.com, a pop culture webzine that reaches 1.2 million unique visitors a month. He also contributes regular book and music reviews to PopMatters. Houle has been awarded a $4,000 emerging artist grant from the City of Ottawa to write fiction, and was a Pushcart Prize nominee for a novella that appeared in Midnight Mind. His fiction or poetry has also appeared in places such as Broken Pencil, Word Riot, Pindeldyboz, Kiss Machine, The Danforth Review, Girls with Insurance, Thieves Jargon, Friction magazine, Megaera, and many others. His poem “Ode to the Long Lost Mini-Pops Album” was published in the book anthology In Our Own Words, Vol. 7 (MW Enterprises, 2007).

Read his contributions to Snake-Oil Cure here.

Someday, They, Too, Will Bury Us All In Carbonite

.
t was accidental, the discovery
he could walk through walls
like they didn’t even exist in the first place. It was an ability that came unannounced to him; something that didn’t trumpet its oncoming in the same way that an adolescent discovers he or she might be coming of age at the discovery of a moustache fuzz or bloody underwear. What was truly particular about this newfound talent was that he didn’t find out about it in his crib or at school – a time when such a “talent” might lead him or, God forbid, his parents to believe he was a superhero. No. He discovered this uncanny ability somewhere in his 20s, which meant that at least a good quarter to third of his life had probably just up and passed him by before he actually noticed this particular knack of walking through walls like a ghost. (Don’t ask him to be precise when it comes to the actual age he discovered this talent. He doesn’t really remember, but not out of forgetfulness. He, himself, has simply stopped caring about such moot details.)

Our hero – let’s call him Melvin, a lame name if there was one – found out that he could walk through walls in an office building, of all places. What day did it happen? It was never recorded. What time of day did it happen? It might have been morning or afternoon. What season did it occur? Nobody remembers, least of all him, and probably very few would even care, anyway. Besides, people have a strange habit of not noticing the exceptional in other people, and if they do they take it as a threat to themselves, their or their family’s wellbeing, their ability to pay the mortgage, that kind of thing.

Anyway, the job he was performing that fateful day was not important, either, as nobody in his office really took much notice of him. Melvin was mediocre enough to not be a threat, he didn’t play office politics, and he tended to ignore the banal office cooler chat of his colleagues. The only detail really recorded in his memory, and thus important to this story, is that he was walking along near his desk and, quite accidentally, tripped over one of the laces of his dress shoes, a pair now long disposed of. (Don’t ask him about the brand name. It, like most of the other pathetic details of his life, is now long forgotten.) His shoulder should have collided with a section of the soft monolithic gray wall, probably some kind of particleboard, but he doesn’t quite recall.

What he does remember is that it didn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt at all. In fact, it was quite pleasant and tingly. His body suddenly felt electric. And then, the sensation was suddenly yanked from him when he heard someone – a female – scream somewhere nearby.

“Oh my God! Melvin is trapped in the wall!” He flinched at this sound, and immediately turned around – thus tearing his shoulder and upper arm out of the wall. He meant to face the woman – was it a new admin assistant? A temp worker? Who knows? – but found that he could not. This was not because he lacked the motivation or courage to stand up for himself, no. Rather, it seemed that the lady couldn’t stand up to him. She’d fainted, sprawled out like a body at a crime scene. At this point, he decided he should slink away before he got blamed for this unfortunate event – he was the only one nearby and already he could hear the approaching shuffle of feet –  so he ducked into an intersecting corridor and made his retreat to the nearest stairwell. He ran up a floor, then down a floor using another staircase. It was easy to avoid detection as hardly anyone used the stairs. If you use the stairs, you, too, can be an anti-social ghost in your workplace.

Anyhow, he soon found himself back at his desk, trying hard to concentrate on his tasks that, to this very day, nobody remembers with much fondness. After all, nobody remembers how one pays the rent once you’re dead and gone, anyway. Melvin found, however, that he couldn’t get back into the swing of his work. Not because of the commotion caused by the fainted lady, oh no. It was because he felt the urge to plunge his arm into the soft woolen mesh of the cubicle wall, to see if what he’d experienced was a lark. After carefully checking to see if anyone was peeking into his cubicle or “prairie dogging” as the idiot sunshine-y girl with a boyfriend next to him was prone to do – God, what was her name again? – all he could bring himself to do was stick a few fingers through the wall. Much to his delight and utter surprise, his fingers simply went through the wall without making the slightest tear in the fabric. His digits vanished, disappeared. The thing that struck him, once again, was how pleasurable the feeling was, how the tingling sensation once again made him feel. It was like someone running a feather duster over the point where he made contact with the wall. As quickly as he realized this, he withdrew his fingers, and starting to feel another, more overwhelming sensation overtake him. Namely, that, if he continued, he would be caught or discovered by sneaky coworkers. His discovery was something he did not want to share. It was one thing to be seen as being special as a child and lovingly doted on by “authority” (though being labeled as special could also invite ostracism among one’s peers at a young age, too, he supposed); however, as an adult, he found that other people tended to be in revulsion or fear, not awe, of those with bizarre talents. Hell, just getting work done to deadline was almost enough to get his coworkers in a tizzy: he’d already suffered the slings and arrows of being told to “slow down, for Heaven’s sake!”

He looked around quietly and proceeded back to work, never once wondering just why it was that he could somehow break one of the laws of physical reality without much reason or rhyme, or why he didn’t drop to the ground from the chair he was sitting in and fall on his behind. He chose to banish these things from his mind, and continue onward with the daily drudgery.

During the days and weeks that followed, he continued to try to forget about his, for lack of a better term, “talent.” He found, though, that he couldn’t. It was everywhere. Every time that he came close to bashing his face, his hand, his foot into a door or a wall or a rock … there it was, that sensation again. It didn’t matter if it were accidental or not, he could plunge his entire body headlong into a cement barrier and discover that he could penetrate right through it and arrive, completely unscathed, out the other side. The feeling, the sheer sensation of being able to plunge a fist into a wall and experience pure, unadulterated joy instead of pain and hurt started to become addictive to Melvin. If the truth were to be told, in fact, he began – almost subconsciously at first – to think of himself as a Superhero with powers that could somehow change the world, for good or ill. In fact, every day on the bus into work, packed like a sardine in that tin can with dozens of ordinary, stinky and rather uninteresting people with nothing better to do than prove they had cellphones by talking rather loudly into them, he would imagine the ways he could put his powers to use. Perhaps more accurately, he would try to imagine the uses he could put his powers to. He found that there weren’t very many things one could do by simply being able to walk through walls other than haunt people. He couldn’t save babies from burning buildings or anything grandiose like that. Even if he could grab onto, say, a baby in a burning building, there were no guarantees that said infant would be able to come back with him – assuming that a wall offered the only escape route.

All he could think of were the drawbacks to having the power of being able to walk through walls. It was a passive power, one that would only allow him the opportunity to be a voyeur: he could spy on women undressing or, assuming he fell in with the appropriate spy agency, enemies of the state. Stuff like that. What particularly stymied him, however, was the fact that he felt straitjacketed by his powers. What would happen if he actually disclosed his ability to anyone? Would he be locked up in a cell of titanium steel while government lackeys prodded and poked him and ran him through all sorts of embarrassing tests? He had to wonder, and he had plenty of time to do so on the bus. The more that he thought about it, the more that he felt outright paralyzed by his inability to do anything useful with this power of walking through walls.

Coincidentally, he began to discover that his powers were growing and becoming more prominent with the passing of time. It was odd. It started with pens and paper slipping through his butterfingers. Then it gradually got worse and worse. One minute, he would be holding one end of the frying pan while he crossed his kitchen and the next minute, it would clatter to the floor along with his bacon, without any explanation for the slippage. His inability to hold onto physical objects just happened for no reason, and with more and more frequency as the months and years wore on. It was as though he’d suddenly obtained another secret Superhero identity: this time, the Clumsy Buffoon. What’s more, while he had succeeded in keeping his ability to walk through walls a secret, everyone in his workplace almost immediately noticed that he, Melvin, was starting to lose his touch. In fact, the girl beside his cubicle – the one with the boyfriend – suggested one day when he came over to drop off, hands shaking, a series of binders that he go get that checked out.

“That could be an early sign of Parkinson’s or something,” she purred cruelly.

He thanked the girl and continued on in his duties, but secretly wished he had the power to turn himself invisible so nobody would notice all of his foolish gaffes and public humiliations. He often wondered whether or not this was deliberate: the curse to his blessing, the yin to his yang. Whether or not his new ability was a bad thing, at least he was thankful that he lived in a basement apartment. Should his ability suddenly enable him to drop through entire floors, he wouldn’t have very far to go. Nobody would have to bury him; he could disappear entirely from sight. However, if this were to happen at his job, he understood he could drop through entire stories, presumably to his death.

However, such speculation is now pretty much moot as our hero Melvin suddenly, one day, found himself out of a job. It just up and went in precisely the same way his ability to control his motor skills seemed to be leaving him. All it took was some paperwork and a rather sorrowful meeting with his boss, who looked at him like our hero was a lost puppy. The boss spent much of his time asking, “Are you OK?” Melvin just sighed and said that this was probably the best thing that could happen to him, and it was time to move on anyway. Was there a personal reason for this sudden dismissal? Not really, though it could be argued that more socializing among his coworkers might have saved him.

Anyhow, what was done was done and nobody really missed him at the office, so these are just superficial details that don’t really add up to very much. (In fact, the guy that they hired to take his job turned out to be much better, anyway, so why cry about it?)

On the bus ride home from his dismissal, Melvin sat alone, clutching whatever belongings he had been able to rescue from his office, and mused to himself that reinvention as a Superhero, despite his initial misgiving, would be, perhaps, a good thing. He, for one, would be given the opportunity to try new things, try something different. He closed his eyes and simply re-imagined himself as being useful, someone who spent all day flying around and saving lives. He imagined himself as someone who would be on the front pages of the newspaper, day after day, like a Spider-Man or Superman – forgetting, of course, that these characters weren’t real. The truth of it, however, is that in spite of his best intensions, Melvin didn’t get very far in this new line of work. Sure, he was able to hire a tailor who could stitch together a cape and skin-hugging tights under the ruse that it was for a costume party he got invited to. It wasn’t anything special: just a skintight black outfit and cape with a brick as its center logo. (He could think up nothing better that would illustrate his uncanny ability to walk through walls.) He was proud of his new suit – one without a tie, he noted wryly to himself – and preened himself in the mirror after he put it on for the very first time, ignoring the obvious swimmer’s sag, “shrinkage,” between his legs.

Yet, once he stepped outside his front door one summer’s evening in this tight, sweaty outfit, reality dealt him a real blow: he was not quite ready for the front page, after all. While running to his first “job” to save a woman from a mugger in a rather dire area of the city he lived in, his feet got all tangled up and he landed with a thud on the cold cement of the street he had been sailing down. He did not disappear into the ground as he might have expected, though, and so the main sensation he received from this outing was one of intense and horrible pain. What went wrong? Who knows? Who cares? It doesn’t matter anyway, much like Melvin.

While walking home from this sad occurrence, bruised and battered, some teenagers on a sidewalk outside a liquor store pointed at him and laughed, then threw empty beer bottles at him. Their accuracy surprised him, as did the sensation of being pelted with glass that shattered all over his body. Now, that had hurt. (In fact, that had hurt a lot.) Anyhow, feeling inadequate and unsuitable for the job, he turned his mind to other jobs that would benefit from his special and unique talent. He brooded and brooded for days in his tiny basement lair, trying to determine what he needed to do to get ahead. He mused what it would take to have another job and have purpose and meaning, or, put another way, an identity of some sort that he could latch onto. He thought he could get into the drug trade. They always needed drug runners in that line of work, and maybe his ability to walk through walls could help him out of any sort of sticky situation? But then he realized that this had the potential of being a really bad idea, one as bad as being a superhero, so he got up, went to the fridge seeking the first of what would likely become a series of endless beers, and g

 

(Something happened. He doesn’t remember the rest. He got up to the beer, and the next thing he knew …).

 

                                              et in here?” cried the lady, the naked middle-aged woman he was presumably trying to save from drowning in the shower. He looked down, seeing how pathetic he looked, dressed in his superhero outfit, but wasn’t sure what he was doing. His vision was a bit blurry, but he was pretty sure that was his cock hanging out. He asked himself: What was my short, flabby cock doing hanging out of his suit like that? He then quickly tucked the flaccid weapon away, his face flush with embarrassment and the fear of having done something wrong, of having taken on a villainous role.

Shouldn’t I be trying to save this lady? This was my job, was it not? I’d smashed the barrier of the dull work-world and had struck out on my own as a Superhero, a consultant, no?

He sighed, glanced around, and noticed that his surroundings seemed vaguely familiar and, yet… strange – he’d never been in this room before, but it looked almost identical to the way his bathroom had been laid out in his bachelor pad. The same gray tiles on the floor, the same porcelain claw-footed tub. It was as though someone else had moved into his apartment and replaced all of his belongings with his or her own.

Then it struck him. He never felt more simultaneously scared and stupid than when the truth finally dawned on him: He was in another apartment in the same building. After all, hadn’t he seen this woman on the stairs leading into the building at least once or twice?

“Get away from me!” she cried, hiding behind the shower curtain, throwing bottles of Jergens at him. A bottle of conditioner ponged off of his head. Another plastic bottle plonked off his chest. This hurt and hurt a lot. Who knew that plastic could be so dangerous, so unsafe, so unreassuringly hazardous? This was something Melvin pondered, as he understood what it was that he had to do.

He leapt through the woman – So this is what having breasts feels like, he thought lazily – past her into the wall of the shower, and on into the next room. This time, however, he did not feel the pleasurable sensation that normally accompanied his

 

(Again, this part he doesn’t remember. Perhaps it just wasn’t worth recording.)

 

                                                                                     eviction notice had been slid under the door. Millions of green beer bottles were scattered around apartment as though they were kryptonite. Melvin sat on the bed, took off his suit and wondered where on earth he’d been. Try and try as he might, he simply could not remember a thing about his whereabouts during the last few days. It was like there were gaps, breakages in the film of his memory. Which was strange, he didn’t really recall ever experiencing any sort of memory loss prior to the strange events of this tale. He put his head in his hands and wondered: Why me? What have I done? What is going on here? Nothing is making any sense at

  

(Another gap in his memory. God, he was getting pretty useless now, wasn’t he?)

 

                        “And don’t come back you

 

(Another blank.)

 

            pounded fists into

 

(Yet another hole in his memory.)

  

felt nothing

 

(Still another.)

                                                                                    utterly frustrated and

(And again.)

 

            was published in maybe 1974 or ’76, and was about these kids who discover an egg in the forest one day. A boy and a girl. It was glowing. Its own source of energy, a source of power. And together, using the power of the magic egg, the duo had all sorts of adventures, saving the world from people who were wasting energy. It was an educational comic, published by one of the government departments. Melvin wasn’t sure why he remembered this pathetic little comic, especially now, locked up in the clink, but he recalled the irony: the boy and girl used up all of their power in their quest to rid the world of waste. By trying to educate other people, they wound up setting

 

(It’s happened again.)

being

(And yet again.)

a bad example

                       

(What happened next? Does anyone remember? Does anyone care?)

 

            after the jail experience, and, in the street, he discovered a wall. A concrete wall. Melvin put his hands on it to feel its coldness. He wondered why there wasn’t a word to describe something cold that emanated its coldness – sort of the opposite of warmth. He quickly banished the thought. He felt he had no use for superficial thoughts since the incident in the prison shower when he bent over to reach the soap. Which, in and of itself, was a thought he tried not to think about much. Not anymore. Instead he put his focus on the wall.

It seemed to offer freedom, in a very backhanded way. This was ironic, how something so cold and uninviting – a self-made prison – could seem to offer protection. A wall seemed so suddenly maternal to him. An escape from the drudgery, sameness and agony offered up by daily life. He thought of the old office. And home. The old office. And home. Both of which he no longer had. Both of which he had escaped from. Could that have been his best Superhero trick? Now, he knew the answer. Now he could know no harm. Not to himself, or others. And so he began to merge with the wall, meld with it.

It was as easy as walking into it and pretending like it just wasn’t there. And that was that. He was frozen, trapped in the wall like Walt Disney in a block of ice. Waiting to be reborn. Waiting for the possibility of being “cured” of his peculiar talent later on in life. And that was that. He was out like a light. Living a life in limbo, waiting for something to happen. Being dead-alive.

The last significant thing he remembered hearing upon taking up his new life in the wall just so happened to be the first thing he heard, thus making it the only thing worth recording or noting. It was the voice of some young kid, a boy probably not much older than eight or so. The words. He remembers them like bricks scattering, dropping off a wall. Or bricks still remaining in a game of Breakout on the old Atari system:

“Hey, that guy there,

                        that

            guy,

he

                                                                        just

                                    vanished                                             

                                                                                                into

                        a

                                                                        brick

                                                  wall.”

 

And the reply from another voice, a bum – someone without a history worth noting, shilling for change on the street, who somehow felt he had to add his two cents:                   

“Someday,

they,

too,

will

bury

us

all

in

carbonite.


Look what they did to Han Solo, trying to be a hero and everything.” 

* * * * *

Zachary Houle lives in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, where he works for the federal government as a Project Officer and is also an Associate Music Reviews editor for PopMatters.com, a pop culture webzine that reaches 1.2 million unique visitors a month. He also contributes regular book and music reviews to PopMatters. Houle has been awarded a $4,000 emerging artist grant from the City of Ottawa to write fiction, and was a Pushcart Prize nominee for a novella that appeared in Midnight Mind. His fiction or poetry has also appeared in places such as Broken Pencil, Word Riot, Pindeldyboz, Kiss Machine, The Danforth Review, Girls with Insurance, Thieves Jargon, Friction magazine, Megaera, and many others. His poem “Ode to the Long Lost Mini-Pops Album” was published in the book anthology In Our Own Words, Vol. 7 (MW Enterprises, 2007).

This is his first contribution to Snake-Oil Cure.