Arete

I was there when Buck Holley beat the Mechanical Man. Back in ’77. Heh, good ole Buckey Holley. Never seen a man so lean, so mean; so full of creatine. Oh boy, I tell ya they pumped ’em back then. They sure did. And Buck had the system of a bull. They shot him up with uppers, downers, swishers and swashers. The whole gamut. Most men couldn’t even take a swisher without seizing up like some epileptic. Not Buck though, no. Man was a bull.
      And the Mechanical Man. Whew, you should’ve seen him. Just bits and pieces – you get it? They say before he was the Mechanical Man he was just another Mickey Davey from the south part of Boston. But you know how it goes. You ship ’em off to war, and when they don’t come back men, you build ’em into something better. And that’s when it started, you know? When we really started building better men. Mickey wasn’t no different, not really. Just had that poor, dumb, Irish luck is all. Most men, you send ’em off, and the unlucky ones get a prosthetic. But Mickey? Man had a new limb for every tour. Funny thing, though. Mickey got the better end of all that switching and swapping. Run faster, jump higher; wicked precise movements. Never complained of fatigue. Oh, the army loved him. They built a Mechanical Man, and he won them the war. All his poor, dumb, Irish luck turned him into a hero. That’s why it was such a shame to see Buck turn him into scrap metal. What’s a soul to do, though? We just keep building better men.
     After the war, Mickey was something of a celebrity. The emblem of a new age. I was in San Francisco at the time, a few years before the Great Exodus. We’d just won the war, the United Nations was in our back pocket, and America was poised to be the presiding nation of our interplanetary enterprise. And so that summer was hot.
      To be young and walk the promenade. To be American and walk the promenade. To be a man and walk the promenade. That sweet summer heat licked that sweet summer sweat right outta everyone. The air was muggy and the evaporation, palpable. And if you stopped to smell its sweet scent, you’d well acquaint yourself with the invocation of the human spirit. We had shuffled off our mortal coils; we had achieved transcendant animalism. There was light and warmth and love and moments sans reflection. We were so damned thoughtlessly happy.
      And I remember the streets were shrieking so – with light and laughter and music. It was the first time I had seen the brass. They were a trio for the modern age – the short black with a missing finger, the tall white with the fake eyes, and the shiny Mexican-Jew tranny with a voice like broken soap. And with them a french horn, flugelhorn, and trombone. Couldn’t tell you about the white or the black, but boy could that tranny play the trombone. She was slick-fingered and wild-eyed. When she closed her eyes and pressed her lips on the brass, that brow, strong, dark, and unapologetic, furrowed and writhed like a cobra. (Not that I ever seen a cobra.) I’d never seen such passion, and it was mesmerizing.
      She caught my ear, first. That trombone would trill and sing. I swear, it was the first time that I had ever heard triumph. But then she caught my eye, and I watched her play for a long time. Never saw a queen pull off that red, white, and blue drag – not ’til her. Now I wasn’t any hawk, but after that third, fourth, and then fifth bar, she had me soaring like the rest of them. And for once, I didn’t feel like just a cheerleader for Uncle Sam and the Mechanical Man. It was my day, too.
      And what a day it was. As long as you didn’t look too closely at the ground. Beer-soaked hamburgers and hot dogs. And after enough feet had tramped over them, they damn near pasted the rents in the walkway (ain’t no need for pavers). And the drains smelled sickly clean. Gutter shots; what a way to drink in the new year.
      And that sweet summer heat – sticky and insidious – it gets under your skin. A pigeon pecked at a balled up shimmer-slick tee, hunting for scraps. And that wasn’t the only tee. By midday, I swear, the promenade was like one of those old flea-markets. Clothes everywhere. Mine, too. But what did I care? I was a fecund youth. And I admired the women, topless and all. Enjoying their freedom, their American freedom, bought and delivered by the Mechanical Man.
      Like I said, the Mechanical Man was a celebrity. But more than that, he’d become an American hero. Out on the pier, they built him an effigy. Whatever scrap they could steal. See that Herculean figure – made of stop signs and yield signs and do not pass signs, the straps and grits and filings of the iron of the old, rotting promenade. I passed by the gift shop and saw a mother and son. The boy was clutching an action figure. Had all sorts of buttons and settings – maybe even program it to fight the Reds or the Muslims or whoever’s keeping us from building better men. And see that kid’s face light up with the voice-activation, I am the Mechanical Man, better built from scraps and man’s handicaps!
      We were just so thoughtlessly happy. So how could I blame him? What with the fervor and the star-studded posters. The Mechanical Man, you’d read, And to think America ever needed Clark Kent. Who were we kidding?
      Wasn’t too long after that, you’d see Mickey Davey on all those talk shows. Asking him all those American questions. How many men were there? What were the odds? Was it your strength or your cunning? And Mickey’d just smile and nod and soak it all up; never eager, never broke a sweat. There were a lot of men. The odds were terrible, just like buying a ticket. And, John, don’t you know? Strength is cunning.
      Then John gets to the real question, right? Ever get scared? I only ever saw him on the TV screen. So in that half-breath before Mickey answered, I never could tell what he was thinking. He had funny eyes, you know? And in the half-breath, in just that moment, they kinda glazed. I don’t know what they saw, right then, but for a moment there, he almost looked like a prophet. And then it’d pass, almost as quick as it’d started. And then he’d crack that wicked, cocksure smile, When you’re built to be better, you just don’t think of that kinda thing. Ain’t no thing to be afraid of. And the audience would roar.
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