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"A BETTER MAN THAN YOU," short story excerpt

Monday 11/14/22

Marcus looked at the four photos again. He looked at the photos often. He’d been looking at them at every opportunity for three days. It was a long weekend. Spring forward, fall back. No—that wasn’t done on a holiday weekend. He was discombobulated. Perturbed. He didn’t know what he was. He really didn’t want to have the photos but he also really wanted to. That is, if he were asked to give them back—which would be strange—he’d decline. No, refuse. Rage if necessary. Shake the proverbial clenched fist. Or probably ignore the request.


How would it even be phrased? “I had a weak moment.” Or, “I’m struggling.” Conceivably, “I was off my meds.”


The request for the return or destruction of the photos might further continue with, “I have nothing against you. Please. Neither of us do. I’m begging.”


And what was that supposed to mean? Did she know? Was she in on this? Did she give him the idea? How twisted would that be?


Then again—that could also be a signal from her. She wouldn’t show those photos to anyone else. Probably no one else. So she was thinking about him that way. People have all kinds of weird methods to try and set up the future by what they’re willing to attempt in the present. Even when the present dips into the past.


The photos had come in via his website shortly after five on Friday. Parts of the sun were still out. Marcus viewed the rays as an extension of the star, like limbs. The sun had component aspects—portions of which it was comprised. Like a sea urchin or an octopus. Rivers and oceans really belonged to the same whole. The sun was too complex to be just a fireball. Not all of the sun set at once. The rays could hang behind, portending tomorrow. Some rays. Tendrils. Even the sun lived in the future by what it tried to set up in the present, and just about everyone could remember if it was cloudy or sunny the day before.


Standard hate mail usually arrived during the middle of the night. Trolls preferred to be drunk first. Or needed to be. That’s why they were trolls. In the morning, Marcus knew a troll would arise and say to him or herself, “What did I do? Why did I do that? What will happen now? Shit. Shit. Shit.”


Marcus was accustomed to feeling the same way a troll did but for different reasons. Because he missed someone or he wanted to do something drastic. Pull an arm from a socket. Not from the body. Just from the socket. To show that he meant business as someone who’d been hurt who shouldn’t have been, which he could admit was emotionally elitist, but that was pain’s fault. Pain was a troll without the next-morning concerns of being detected and exposed. Or the shame.


He didn’t even know that you could send photos as attachments—spicy attachments—through the contract form on a website. Or else this man was an ace with technology.


“Thought you’d enjoy,” was all the accompanying note said, and was signed A BETTER MAN THAN YOU.


The all caps made it worse. If this man was going to be a better man than Marcus, he’d want him to be a great man, which was less insulting, and Marcus did not believe a great man would ever write in all caps.


At the same time, given the state of affairs and the existence of the photos Marcus kept looking at, it was challenging not to think that this man—who wasn’t even a great man—was much better than Marcus was. The four photos seemed like plenty, too much, and not enough all at once.


After another day in sweatpants, looking at the photos, then shedding his sweatpants and sitting in boxers, and then shedding his boxers and sitting with his bottoms off and his sweatpants on his chair at the desk in front of the computer so that his bare skin wouldn’t touch the leather, Marcus decided he would do errands or else he might mutate otherwise.


He’d force himself. Or he’d get ready to do errands. Getting ready to do something was still something. There were a lot to get through. He’d let the list become a cumbersome pile of deeds to be done. Now they felt like they were a part time job. There were peppers to procure. They were meant to boost his immune system, being high in Vitamin C. Marcus had been getting sick a lot lately, but that happened at the start of every fall these days and now there were the photos to influence his mood. They made it swing sufficiently to change him in ways beyond moods if he wasn’t careful, like they were being tattooed via vacillation into who he was and could henceforth become permanent.


He was unable to reach the man who’d sent the four photos. There was a space for someone to put their email address on the contact form for Marcus’s website. The man had written inthecaboose@gmail.com, and when Marcus sent a blank email from a phony email address he’d just made called truthferret78@yahoo.com, the email bounced back to him with a note saying that the address didn’t exist.


Marcus’s disappointment was tempered with relief, but it was the kind of relief like when you learn you have pneumonia rather than your lungs have permanently failed. The next three weeks will be a bear all the same.


There had been some worry that the man who sent the photos invented the email address on his end, or thought he did, but it was actually a real email address belonging to someone else, and Marcus would have to deal with a train aficionado or employee of the railway system and determine if that was the man who sent the photos and also presumably the man in them or else an innocent bystander caught up in this intrigue.


The man in the photos who probably did not work for the railroad had his face blocked out. In the first photo, there was a digitized cartoon pink unicorn in front of his head. The unicorn was smiling, but it was more like a grimace than a smile, as if the unicorn were determined to achieve a goal specific to the abilities of a unicorn.


Marcus wondered what expression the man himself wore underneath the horse’s face, if indeed a unicorn was a species of horse. He envisioned a clenched underbite and glinting eyes indicative of the sagacity that we are more like animals than we believe and in this context that same animalism is transcendent and not base but glorious. A look that also said that other people are better at not missing out on things than you are and that’s just how it is and will always be and you would always have to try and cope with something that couldn’t be managed. Which itself was a haunting challenge without any way to meet it or possible successful resolution, as if it were a wound that would never heal and would always need its dressing changed.


In another photo, in which both the man and the woman who had been Marcus’s wife were facing the camera, and Marcus’s ex-wife was sort of imitating a horse, at least positionally, the man had elected for a Strawberry Shortcake face to cover his own.


That was strange. Why Strawberry Shortcake? What was the message there? Was the Purple Pieman too on the nose? It must have been a message. You wouldn’t randomly pick Strawberry Shortcake.


Along those lines, Marcus picked out the mole at the top of his ex-wife’s chest. A birth mark. It was light brown and always made him want to get cream in his coffee instead of taking it dark which was better for him.


He remembered a line she said just the once, after he’d bought her a contraption via Amazon.

“It’s so erotic,” she stated.


“You can get anything on Amazon,” he replied, as if that was the point. “Fertilizer. Bags of seashells. Axes. Candlestick holders.”


She nodded as she fixed her gaze on the contraption—one of those nods that makes one person unsure if the other person has ever really heard them. But that was irrational. It had to be.


He didn’t know what she was referring to exactly, but he tried to believe that she meant the thought he’d had to get the contraption for her rather than the contraption as a stand-alone item. Marcus wasn’t shooting for isolation. He wanted to be in there, too. He worried that the contraption was not overtly personal enough, despite the nature of its use. But it wasn’t like he could have signed it. That would have been strange. And maybe dangerous if it managed not to be strange by some latex-based miracle. The ink was sure to run off.


In the Strawberry Shortcake photo she was smiling. Verging into laughing. Right in the middle of it. Not gasping. Not groaning. In control. Well, in other ways. You don’t control a real smile and a real laugh. They just happen. She was having them happening.


With the third photo, the man who wore the Strawberry Shortcake face was now wearing an Al Roker one, despite the rest of him being white—but notably swarthy—and Marcus’s ex-wife was clearly motioning to someone standing off to the side, like she was trying to get his attention. Their attention. Her? Who could it be? What was happening here? The man with the faces had a scar on his belly. A series of jagged ups and downs that caused Marcus to think of the stock market. The man must have done something awesome, like survived a shark attack by sticking his fingers in its eyes and held his guts from spilling away until help came.


Marcus felt for the shark. No one ever talks about those sharks who have had fingers stuck into their eyes. It’s not like eyes grow back. Tails, yes, up to a point. For lizards. Eyes for nobody. The shark was only doing what the shark was supposed to do. A shark doesn’t target anyone. Well, it does, but it’s not personal. They were there first. You hear that all the time.


The person who survives that attack and fends off the shark by destroying its eyes doesn’t kill the shark, which swims back out into deeper water. But what does that shark do then? How long could it possibly last? A shark can’t kill itself, no matter how badly it wants to, unless it swims out of the sea. That’d be the shark’s only real option unless it wanted to experience the apogee of suffering by dying of starvation. Or the nadir. No, the height. Pain was something you were taken to, way above, a peak, Marcus believed, so that you could be dropped down from it.


There was so much pleasure on her face. Or was it happiness?


“Fucking happiness,” Marcus thought.