Short Fiction by Naomi Elster
Whoever named this town Prosper had a sense of humour, and no one was laughing anymore.
Prosper was dusty and dry, the kind of sleepy place that looks good in an old black and white film, but not so good in technicolour. Once there was a mill, and fields which could be worked. Then the economy died, the ground and the work it supplied dried up and cracked. The problems had been there a long time; now the weather was making it worse. The summers were stretching, so many freak heatwaves happening in succession that they burned their way in into being the new, hellish, normal. Where there’s smoke there’s fire. Where there’s no smoke, there’s the fear of it, the expectation and the guessing: where will the next wildfire start? And where will it stop?
Jake yawned. He wanted a beer but didn’t want to get up and go to the fridge himself. So many fucking sites, not a single fucking job on any of them.
Not a job for Jake Green, in any case, whose only qualification was underqualification. Gas station. Never heard back. Warehouse operative. Rejection email said he was underqualified. Why the hell do you need to graduate high school with good grades to lift shit onto shelves? Stock assistant at the mall. The thought of that busy place full of lights, noise and people, made him feel uneasy. What the hell was wrong with the world that he couldn’t find something, anything to do? He was strong. There had to be some work left somewhere where no one looked down on you if you flunked maths or didn’t give a shit about what was on the news. For a crazy but energising moment he wondered if the world would be better without machines, if someone should just go to that John Deere place out of town and burn it down, force the local farmers to employ real men again.
Months of this were stretching towards years, and everything about doing nothing was grinding him down. He took a break from the job sites. A tiny voice said he should go outside, not log in again for the third time today, so early. But there was nothing else to do, not for hours. And however painful it was, the truth was on there and he needed to face up to it – like a man.
On the way to the diner, he saw hardly anyone. Anyone he did see was part of a set or part of a pair. Jake was used to being the loner, the weird one, the outcast. It was only lately he had started to understand why. He sat at the counter, watching the girl behind it as she moved around, taking orders and shouting them back to the kitchen, collecting glasses and cleaned them. Jake swallowed hard. It was easy, remember?
He mumbled. Didn’t know if she’d heard him. Probably had, but was ignoring him. They thought they could do that these days, the dumb bitches. When Prosper had its good days, boys were employed for their muscles and girls for their smiles. They quit school and got married and he worked, his hands lined with dirt from the fields and oil from the engines so that she could keep hers all manicured and pretty. That was just the way it was. Then the men who owned the land worked out one machine could replace fifty men. The girls, though, the girls were fine, with their cosy little typing jobs and waitressing shifts, having the audacity to act like their sissy little jobs counted as real work. Me too? Give me a fucking break.
His mouth was dry. This time she looked up. “Hey, you say something?”
Eye contact. Make eye contact. Then say something negative. Make her want your approval.
“Why you starin’? I got work to do here.”
He got it out, finally. But it was meant to sound like he didn’t care, and it sounded more like a desperate whine than the suave tone he’s been trying for. “Hey, what you doin’ later?”
“I’m busy later. Were you going to order anything? Can’t just sit there all day unless you going to order something.”
A rush of heat and rage exploded in his chest, beefing up his voice.
“Get me a beer. Make sure you don’t mess it up.”
She looked at him, shocked. Well, at least he’d thought her to have some respect for him. Maybe she’d be nicer now, try to seek his approval, like the guys on the site said they would.
Then she burst out laughing. She was laughing so hard she almost didn’t manage to take his cash. She went out back and within seconds Jake could hear even more laughter echoing behind the door.
Almost five minutes later: “I hope I haven’t messed it up,” as she slammed a bottle on the counter. “Not like you have, anyway.”
Jake felt heat spread across his pudgy neck, saw his knuckles tighten to white around the brown glass. He’d like to smash the bottle into pieces, hear the crash, watch something break into a thousand sharp splinters. He felt his vision blur – the barmaid’s lipstick flickered slut-red to witch-black and back again.
“Hey, who the fuck you think you are? Why do you blow off every guy that comes in here?”
An elaborate roll of makeup-enhanced eyes. “Cos you don’t do nuthin’, any of you.” She disappeared behind the pile of unwashed glasses the other end of the counter.
Don’t blame that one on me.
“Dude, why you all hunched like that?”
Nick had the nasal kind of laugh that twisted through your skull like a drill. Nick and Jake were friends from school, where their teacher had sat them together. Neither boy had any other friend. It was all they had in common then and it was all they had in common now.
“Man, your face….” Nick’s own face twisted into a bewildered grimace. “It’s not contagious, is it?”
“Nothing fucking wrong with my face!”
“It’s all…I dunno. What’s the word? Like spotty but those spots are off the chart, man.”
“Whatever. You up to much?”
“Bit of work. Here and there.”
Details of Nick’s work were suspiciously lacking. Same with details of his latest girl. Nick had had many girlfriends during his life, just none who had ever been seen with him. He thought he needed a girlfriend to make himself seem normal, didn’t realise how counter-productive it was to so obviously invent them.
“I been reading on the internet,” Jake started. “You know how liberals love this idea of the welfare state, yeah? A girl with a kid can practically get married to the taxpayer if she gets herself knocked up now, take their benefits and take the man out of the picture.”
“Dude! Not this stupid, fucked-up shit again.”
“No, listen. This guy on the internet was saying, if the government can provide money for a woman to take care of a kid, the government should provide women for sex.”
Nick got up. “Aw man. That’s… that’s… disgusting. You want to know why you can’t get a girl? It’s because you say shit like that. If I was a girl I wouldn’t go near you either.”
“Don’t you get it? It’s a conspiracy. All the women want is normies. Those sluts will only ever willingly sleep with like, the alphas, the top 10%. They’re never going to look at guys like us which is why we have to make them respect us…”
“No, I do get it. There’s no fucking conspiracy. I don’t even think it’s all about looks anymore. They don’t want you cos you’re fucking boring and instead of trying to man up and get yourself something cool to talk about you’re getting sucked into this sad little weirdo hate group on the internet.”
Nick got up and walked down to the other side of the counter, and waited there, embarrassed, too shy to shout for the barmaid’s attention. He mumbled and avoided eye contact as he took his change. When he was younger, Jake would have felt sorry for Nick, a guy who was just too dumb to get it, to realise what he was. But, as that stupid therapist they made him go to had said on what turned out to be his last session, “You can’t help people who don’t want to be helped.”
“No man at all.” Those were the words Jake Green had grown up with. Cry, and you’re no man at all. Be tough, or you’re no man at all.
“If your woman has to work, that’s not what a woman should do. You got to provide for your kids or you’re no man at all.”
His dad had said that to him, or some version of it anyway, day after day, from childhood. Jake’s dad repeated that you had to work to be a man even after age and drink had wasted his own muscles, and tobacco had carved sooty caves of his lungs. He’d sat in his chair and said that from when Jake’s mom left for work in the grey before morning until she came back in the grey after sunset.
It’s not that I’m no man at all. It’s that the world’s turned against men like us. That was one of Jake’s mantras, how he made himself feel better about the situation he was in, all the things he couldn’t get. A job. Money. A woman. A purpose. Hard to believe that at one time, it had looked like it was going to work out. Even for a guy like him.
“I’m just struggling,” she had said to him once, “to work out what it is you do all day.”
What does anyone do all day? Wake up, get up, go back to bed and sleep. In between, leave the house for a while only to come back. One great, big, pointless cycle. So what if he skipped the middle part most days?”
His other mantra, his other coping word, was bitch.
Bitch. Bitch. Bitch. A simple refrain to push that wistful, lonely pain away, when her smile came back into his head and made him feel like crying. Those words put it all back into perspective, took away that sissy feeling and reminded him to be a man.
He wondered where she was now, with her round ass and her pretty smile, wondered if she was right now running her hands over another man’s back while he got a fistful of that perfect round ass, if… That pretty smile. That was the part of her he’d paid least attention to when he had it, and that was the part of her that haunted him now. For a while, life felt different. There was a point to it. But then she started nagging, whining.
“I don’t mind you staying at home. My mom stayed at home. But you think my dad ever came back to a mess like this? You think my dad had to make dinner after work when my mom was home all day?”
“Really? You haven’t applied for a single job, all week?”
The pain when she was gone. That was how he’d found them, his bros, when he was surfing the net afterwards, looking for something to take that pain away. And they made him understand what had happened, told him what all women were really like.
“Eww! Get away! GO!”
He must have fallen asleep when he got back. It was there, on his damned sofa. Nightmares were bad enough without waking up to that thing watching him sleep, like some kind of four-legged furry pervert. He unfolded his legs and pushed up onto all fours, and they stayed there, man and rat, staring into each other’s freakishly similar eyes for a long moment. Then the rat was gone, and Jake was ravenous, so ravenous he was in the kitchen before the thought to go there had fully formed in his sleep-fogged brain, pulling stale bread out of the press and tearing into it with his teeth. Just as suddenly as the hunger had come upon him, it disappeared, leaving his belly bloated and his mind confused, as he looked around the kitchen and took in the mess, the wrappers and tins torn open and discarded on every surface, rubbish and dishes piling up for days. He didn’t need to tidy though, did he? No one ever came round.
He sat down, had another unproductive drift around cyberspace. Took him a few attempts to log in to twitter, he switched accounts so often that it was hard to keep track of passwords. But finally he was back in, back to the egg-shaped profile picture which made him feel like he couldn’t be touched.
Maybe when Ghostbusters goes broke Hollywood will realizse feminists never paid the teh bills and put them bitches back in thee kitchen
He laughed at his own tweet, honestly thinking it was funny. But no one was paying attention.
Some report from one of the big East coast papers on sexual harassment in the workplace was trending. Yeah, right. Made up by someone with attention whore syndrome who didn’t realise how lucky she was to have a job. He found the journalist’s account and his fingers flew over the keyboard at almost the same breakneck speed with which the blood pounded in his temples.
All these feminazi journos…just shows how men do the HARD WORK while DUMB WHORES tak the technology MEN invented and use it to spout their stupid misandry
And it just felt like power, like being a real man again. It was something he could share with his bros on the site later. He was pretty big on the forums now, had a lot of respect from the guys. But one of the newbies on the site had posted about how he’d been serially groping women on public transport without getting caught, so Jake knew he’d have to up his game now. Jake had never had respect like this before, not from people worth respecting. Hell, no way was he going to lose it. He was retweeted straight away, someone playing the sexist card for attention.
#yesallwomen get this #sexist shit from assholes like this. Time to #reclaimtheinternet
His neck flushed red hot – at this dumb bitch on twitter, at the girl at the bar earlier, at her, at every woman who acted like she was worth something and he was nothing. All these fucking feminists acting like they aren’t the oppressors, like white men aren’t under attack right now, like this isn’t the only way left I can tell the world the truth! And what the fuck did Nick think he knew, saying Jake was boring? Thinking about it made Jake so angry that it felt like something was squeezing tight around him, something he couldn’t see but could feel, pressing in on him from all sides like a shrinking coffin, so that he couldn’t open his chest enough to get the air in, couldn’t move his muscles enough afterwards to get the wasted air out.
He went to the search pages, thought about what would really hurt them.
IM nit suorprised you bitch allllll FUCKED UP being pregnint. Amazed any dude wud even WANT to knock YU up. HAPPY you had that miscarriage – you DON’T DESRV 2 b a Mom!!
Femnazis DESERV canCr – how yOu feeling bout FEMNISM now? FACE IT, you ALWAYS knew all YOU had to offer a man was your boobs, there ALL ur wurth, and now they’re GONE and your NUTHIN. Might as well die.
Blocked again. All that rage still inside him, building higher and higher, like a pressure cooker, one with no release valve. He had to do something. Something that wouldn’t let everyone keep ignoring him, pretending not to hear when he spoke, pressing a button on twitter to silence him. He looked in the mirror. When he’d done what the magazines said, put all that time into the gym, given up coke for protein shakes, he’d really believed what they wrote, that girls would want him then. But it didn’t make any difference. It toned him up but it didn’t make him taller, and from the bored way girls reacted when he talked to them, he found out what the guys on the site already knew – they didn’t want someone who worked at it, they wanted someone who was born perfect. The top 10%. He’d approached girls and told them about how much time he spent in the gym, how much he could lift. That’s what girls were supposed to like, a strong, powerful man. It didn’t make any difference. One time he was even reported to security. He’d spotted a girl leaning against the wall by herself, and it had seemed like a good opportunity. But the more he’d told her about how much he could lift, the more he showed her his muscles, the more she looked at him like he was a freak. Then suddenly, she was gone, and some guy trying to look like the terminator was towering over him. “Son,” the guy had said, “maybe you just misjudged the situation, but we can’t have girls who come here to have a good time feelin’ unsafe.”
Then he was on his ass, on the pavement outside, the humiliation stinging worse than the fall. He made sense of it now by thinking that it had made him stronger in the long run. Girls hurt him. All of them. All the time. In big and little ways. And he was going to get his own back, because that’s what men do. If other guys had girls then he had the right to get one too, and it was time he made a stand, send a message. Those stupid stuck-up bitches couldn’t keep ignoring guys like him, him and his online bros. The only true friends he had. The only friends worth having anymore.
Time for Jake Green to get known.
There was so much blood. It was all he could see, all he could taste – that, and the dry taste of panic. The security guard from the club’s words ringing in his ears. “Son, maybe you misjudged the situation.”
The plan was simple. Go in when it was busy. You can’t send a message when no one’s around to see it. It had to get on the news – a rallying cry. He was going to make like that guy in Montreal, show the weapon and order the men to leave. See how brave the women really were when all their men had been ordered out of the room. Ordered? Hell, they’d go happily, as a favour, because a real man backs another man up.
He remembered walking in, not apologising or feeling awkward, like he always had before. He’d shared his plans on the site and he was a hero. They were all sitting at home, his bros, watching the news, ready to spread the message as soon as it was out. They’d encouraged him, pushed him and pushed him, even when he woke up this morning and almost backed out. They had kept him strong because that’s what real men do for each other.
The barmaid’s eyes narrowed as she watched him come in. Good. He wouldn’t do her first. Let her be scared for a while beforehand. He saw Nick, sitting there by himself, staring into the table as always. Then Nick saw him, looked at him, stood up, shouted – Jake couldn’t hear what he said, because Jake had tuned him out.
He didn’t know what it was, coffee or hot water or something, that hit him in the face. The next thing came before he could even open his eyes, a flash and a world that stopped and shook for seconds. When he opened his eyes his lip had been ripped open on his own teeth, his nose collapsed into a sharp focus of pain, and he saw men’s fists above him, ready to hit him again. A pile-on, not on Twitter but in real life, one he hadn’t expected, and worse than the physical pain were the realisations. Whatever a real man was, it wasn’t this. And for all that they’d egged him on so furiously from behind their keyboards, none of the guys were standing with or behind him now.
He lay on the ground, listening to someone’s pathetic howling, hoping it wasn’t his own voice. Imagining the shame, the national laughter as the news hit the screens, the disgust of his bros online. He could have done it, though. He could have really hurt her. Still howling, he went to tighten his hand on his weapon, but it was no longer there.