by Bev Vincent
Art by Ally Hodges
Raymond didn’t wake up that morning planning to become a superhero. The first thing that entered his consciousness when he emerged from a troubled sleep was the fact that his left shoulder was still sore. At least he was alive. He often thought that if he woke up to find that he didn’t hurt somewhere, he’d assume he was dead.
The sad thing was, he had no idea how he hurt his shoulder. One morning a few weeks ago, he suddenly couldn’t raise his left arm without a crimson jolt of pain. This was in addition to his lower back, which had been causing him problems for the past three or four years. Thankfully, that persistent ache dulled in the presence of the new injury.
How long had it been since he’d been completely without pain? It was hard to remember a day when nothing hurt. Back then, an older friend told him that shit started wearing out once you reached a certain age. He’d laughed, too young to recognize the truth of her statement. Now he knew better. And, unlike with his car, he couldn’t take his body into the shop and swap out the bad shit for new shit. Oh, there were a few things you could replace, he supposed, but not many. And not easily.
Out of habit, he reached over with his good arm to find his wife, only to remember for the hundredth time that she was gone. Dead almost a year now, struck down by a massive heart attack. She had often expressed concern that he didn’t have many friends to console him if she went before he did. She’d been right about that, but they hadn’t expected that day would come so soon.
He dragged himself out of bed and got ready to face the morning, wincing in the shower when he raised his arm to lather his armpits and again a few minutes later when he reached around his back to tuck in his shirt. Simple things shouldn’t hurt so much.
There were several vacant seats on the number 77 bus to the MBTA station, but he stood with his briefcase cradled between his feet because that was easier on his back. He had to keep reminding himself to reach up for the strap with only his right hand. He stood on the subway, too, both on the Red Line and the Green B Line train that deposited him at Boylston three quarters of an hour after he left home. By then, both arms were aching.
Before going into the office, he walked a few blocks to the Bank of America at the corner of Charles and Warrenton to handle an international wire transfer, a service the bank didn’t provide online. At only a few minutes past nine, the lobby was almost empty. He signed the ledger to request a personal banker and took a seat in the waiting area to check his e-mail.
He was composing a reply to an overseas colleague when shouting made him look up from his smartphone. Before he could figure out what was happening, a man wearing dark clothes and a mask knocked the device from his hand and yanked him to his feet. Another person in similar garb moved rapidly through the bank, neutralizing the lone security guard and thrusting a canvas duffel bag at the teller.
“Hands up,” shouted the man who had accosted Raymond.
Raymond raised his right arm. His left he could only get to shoulder height before a twinge of pain made him wince.
“Up,” the man yelled. His hand was in his jacket pocket as if he had a gun in there.
“I can’t . . .”
The man grabbed Raymond’s arm and yanked it up. Molten lava flooded his brain. Everything turned gold, then red, then crimson. He let out a guttural moan and tears leaked from his eyes.
When the man released him, he collapsed to the floor, heart pounding. He cradled his wounded arm and tried to catch his breath, waiting for the excruciating pain to pass. The robber could have shot him then and there and he wouldn’t have cared, but all the masked man did was put a foot on Raymond’s shoulder and push him onto his back. Raymond cried out as a new round of agony sucked the air from his lungs.
“What did you do?” the other man said. “No one’s supposed to get hurt.”
“Phht,” the first man said. “I barely touched the old geezer.”
The robbers were long gone when the police arrived. An officer took Raymond’s statement while a paramedic examined his injuries. “You should see a doctor about that. Something’s torn in there,” the paramedic said. He wasn’t telling Raymond anything he didn’t already know.
He took the rest of the day off from work and made an appointment to see the doctor, something he should have done weeks earlier, when the pain first appeared. He’d already consulted a specialist about his lower back issues, but medical science, it seemed, was generally stumped by this condition. That doctor had suggested costly steroid injections, which hadn’t worked. Raymond had even tried acupuncture, though he’d had little faith in the outcome, and for good reason.
This time, the doctor immobilized his shoulder, and gave him anti-inflammatories and a prescription for physical therapy. “Once we have the swelling under control, you’re going to need to work those muscles or they’ll stiffen up and you’ll have no end of problems,” he told Raymond.
That evening, he watched the news to see if there were any developments in what the reporters called “a recent rash of bank robberies,” but the perpetrators were still at large. Every time he moved, a twinge of pain reminded him of the humiliation he’d endured at the hands of that punk. He retreated to the hot tub and soaked his aching muscles until he was so drowsy he could barely stay awake.
At his first appointment, his physical therapist greeted him by saying, “You’re probably going to hate me by the time we’re done.” Raymond had, indeed, cursed the smiling man under his breath during the initial sessions, but after a while his arm felt limber again and he was almost back to his old self. The old self with all the other aches and pains to which he’d grown accustomed, that is. At least he could put on his shirt without wincing.
He brooded over the bastard who had so carelessly and needlessly caused him pain. He fantasized about getting the drop on the guy and twisting his arm until it popped out of its socket. See how he liked that. Then he imagined a different outcome to the bank robbery. This time, when the thugs rushed into the lobby, he would stand up to them. Bring them to justice. Be a hero.
That was when he first entertained the idea of becoming a superhero. The kind the police commissioner summoned to end a crime wave, children looked up to, women admired, and men aspired to be. They were all the rage these days, judging by the number of movies they were making based on the comics he’d read at the barbershop when he was a kid.
He allowed himself to luxuriate in this free-floating fantasy. What would he call himself? If he could get his hands on a gun, a big sucker like the ones Dirty Harry used, he could be the Lone Gunman. He shook his head. Superheroes didn’t use guns. That was almost a rule. Besides, there was too much of a chance he’d end up shooting himself or injuring innocent bystanders.
How about a baseball bat? He imagined swinging one at the robber’s leg, hearing the patella crack and splinter as the thug fell to the ground, writhing and howling in pain. How satisfying that would be. He could call himself . . . no, that one was already taken. It seemed like all the good names were. Everything that followed the pattern something-man, at least. The only superhero he could think of who didn’t use that kind of name was Robin, and he was just a sidekick. This train of thought deflated him a little. Geezer-Man wouldn’t exactly inspire confidence or instill fear in the hearts of his enemies.
What was his defining characteristic? As he soaked in the hot tub, his nightly prelude to going to bed, a ritual that helped ease some of his discomfort, the answer came to him in a flash. Pain. That was what his life was all about. He would be Pain-Man, a name that invoked shock and awe if ever there was one. He suffered from it, and he would inflict it upon the bad guys.
The more the thought about it, the more he liked it. He imagined a full-face mask, like a ski mask, only his would be decorated with nerves and blood vessels. Like that model he’d wanted as a kid but his parents never got him: the Visible Man. Before he went to bed, he searched online and found exactly what he was looking for at a novelty shop in upstate New York. Wasn’t the twenty-first century grand?
Next, he had to get in shape. Spending thirty minutes each morning on the treadmill might afford him some latitude with his diet, but it wasn’t exactly turning him into an iron-man athlete. His physical therapist recommended a personal trainer, a guy who sidelined as a stuntman in movies that filmed around Boston. His name was Max, and he made the most of it. “We’re going for Maximum benefit,” he’d say. “Have I Maxed you out yet?” he’d ask at the end of a grueling session.
Max also showed him some moves he’d developed for hand-to-hand combat in fight scenes. After a few months, Raymond had prominent muscles in places where they’d never existed before, as well as a whole new set of aches and pains. These ones, though, felt rewarding. They weren’t caused by personal decline but rather by personal development.
A few of his coworkers commented on his improved physique. Raymond shrugged it off by saying that, at his age, he had to work with what he had before it all went to shit. He got the impression that if he asked Carrie from accounting out, she might accept, even though she was considerably younger than he. He filed that notion away for another day. He couldn’t afford the distraction.
While he was beefing up and learning new moves, the bank robbers continued their spree. Raymond mapped out the locations of their crimes, trying to identify a pattern that would help intercept them when he was ready. The police were probably doing the same thing, but Raymond was good at spotting trends; after all, that was what his company paid him to do.
Analyzing the data points, he realized that every bank they hit was at an intersection, probably to give them more options when it came time to get away. They also generally struck early in the morning. If they continued using this M.O., it limited the scope of his operation considerably.
Confident that he was ready to take the robbers on, Raymond shifted his work schedule to allow him to get into the office later than normal, and began staking out banks. No one cared when he worked, so long as he got everything done on time. And it wasn’t like there was anyone waiting on him to get home for dinner.
It took nearly a month, but Raymond finally struck gold. He was sitting on a bench on Clarendon near the Newbury intersection, listening to Spanish lessons on his iPhone. He’d already learned the alphabet, numbers up to a hundred, the days of the week and the months.
Two men got out of a car that idled at the corner near the TD Bank he was monitoring. They pulled ski masks down over their faces as they marched toward the entrance.
The moment of truth. . . .
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Pain-Man by Bev Vincent. Copyright © 2017 with permission of the author. All rights reserved.
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