This is the fourth revision of “The Ability of Gary Cudgel”, and the big deal here is that I had my official reviewers group look at it. They identified directly what my friend may have been intuiting when he suggested I add more political commentary. There was really hardly anything at all in the previous versions of this story. It painted a cute little picture, but there was no tension or conflict worth mentioning. This revision takes the word count 500 over the maximum in order to rectify that. It probably took me another three hours combined, not including copious interruptions.
The Truth about Spirit Lifter
From the desk of Lance Corporal Philip Silver, USMC, Retired
You have no reason to trust me, but finally, the relevant parties having passed into the next life, I am ready to reveal the true identity of Spirit Lifter. My greatest crime in this story was to think it was all about me, so I will introduce myself only as an Afghanistan war veteran with a medical discharge and tremors. At the time, I was working with the state elder plan to help beneficiaries stay on through the bureaucratic changes, and I was living in a section-8 housing complex terrorized by a gang from another neighborhood.
The Cudgel family lived in a one story house with brick siding, white shutters and a shallow-pitched roof. The overgrown yard in front had claimed an old rusted pickup truck for its own. The doorbell to the Cudgel residence did nothing when I pressed it, so I knocked. Moments later, the door swung open, and a huge black-and-white pit bull lunged at me.
Inches from my chest, the dog made an impossible maneuver. It stopped in mid-air with a yelp and did a half-flip, landing on its back. It leapt up again and hopped on its front legs, whining and struggling against nothing. “Barkley, bad dog!” chided an old woman from the top landing. She made her way down the stairs.
“Come in, come in, Lance Corporal!” The woman beckoned to me as she descended the steps. Her hair was white tinged with flamboyant purple. The wrinkles on her face were all from smiling.
“You know me?” I asked, surprised.
“Of course we know you, Lance Corporal Silver,” she chided, “We do read the emails they send us. My name is Evamae Cudgel. Come in! Come in! You’re letting the heat in.”
I reddened. I closed the door behind me and waited for Evamae to indicate where I should go next. Barkley lay down, then leapt up again and rushed forward to lick my hands. I went to my knees and ran an unsteady hand across the short fur on his back as he continued to hop and try to lick my face. I followed Evamae into the living room, where a television was playing “Spiderman.”
As I came in, I heard a rattling noise of glassware. It was a tink tink tink coming from another room. “Gary,” Evamae uttered a sharp rebuke to the man sitting in an easy chair so motionless I had not even noticed him at first, “stop fidgeting.” Gary Cudgel, balding and obese in an enormous handmade sweater, turned his head from the TV and gave his mother an absent look with his broad, blank face. In another few moments, the sound stopped.
“Gary,” Evamae ordered, jabbing a finger in my direction, “greet Lance Corporal Silver.”
“Hullo, Lance Corporal Silver,” Gary said in a slow, guileless voice, turning to look at me. Then he gave his head three slow nods and turned back to his set position in the easy chair.
“Give him some time, Lance Corporal Silver. He’ll open right up. Please take a seat behind the coffee table.”
I had nothing to say, so I just nodded and sat in a cheap plastic folding chair behind a squat table with a red-and-white plaid tablecloth. Barkley laid down next to Gary’s easy chair. “I wanted to go over with you the benefits you’ll be receiving under the new rules. Mostly everything has stayed the same, but I’m going to make sure you make the necessary updates to your status so you and your son don’t lose any coverage.”
Barkley whined, then he rolled over on his back, panting and kicking his leg, his tongue lolling out from his huge smile. I glanced at him corner of my eye as I pried open my heavy government-issued laptop. “Mrs. Cudgel, you are widowed?”
“Yes, Lance Corporal Silver,” said Evamae, “do call me Evamae.”
“Certainly. Please call me Philip, then.”
Evamae smiled, “Philip, I reckon you’re gonna ask me if this one still can’t take care of himself?”
I glanced at Gary, wondering if he minded his mother speaking so casually about him within his hearing. He didn’t seem to be aware of what was happening.
“He can’t,” Evamae answered the question. I marked it on my form.
“He stresses easily, but he’s happy as long as I protect him from too much excitement.” Evamae assured me, “Why don’t I put some tea on?”
I nodded and Evamae stood to go to the kitchen. Barkley rolled back onto his belly and whined again. “Ma,” said Gary, “can I go out for a smoke?”
“Go on, dear. Only one cigarette. Our friend Philip here is going to have some questions for you soon. Take the dog with you.”
“Yeah, Ma,” Gary agreed. He sat for another long moment, then, with concerted effort, rose from his seat deep in the easy chair. As Gary lumbered past, Barkley’s smile vanished and he moved his weight back onto his haunches so all of his legs were pointing toward the man. He had moved his weight so far back it looked as if he should fall backward, but he didn’t. I watched him whine and walk behind Gary in this awkward, reluctant position until they were both outside.
“Use your hands, Gary.” Evamae shouted, “Come ask me questions in the kitchen, Philip. I suppose you’re wondering if I have a job? Taking care of this one is full time.” She nodded towards the porch.
I checked off the box on my form. The conversation continued in this way. Evamae rattled off a memorized list of the questions on my form and offered her colorful answer to each. My hand was shaking more than I liked, but I tried not to let it worry me. She handed me a mug of sweet tea and grabbed her cane and left the room to get some official documents. I lifted the tea to my lips, but it was much too hot. My hand trembled as I tried to put it down again, and I grit my teeth as the hot tea sloshed out onto my wrist.
Stinging from my defeat, I took the tea in my steadier left hand and brought it to my lips to blow on it, when I saw out of the corner of my eye a massive figure standing in the doorway. I startled and let out a gasp. The mug left me entirely, but it’s path downward was not a sensible one. Instead of tipping and spilling its contents, it fell straight down and settled on my leg. I stared at it for a moment before snatching it out of its preternatural balancing act and placing it with utmost care back on the table.
Barkley stood at my side, licking my hand. I looked back at Gary, who stank of tobacco and had a smile on his wide, unassuming face for the first time. “Be careful, Mister Silver.” he intoned.
Then we heard the shriek. “Gary!” Evamae’s shout was not of chastisement but of terror. Barkley’s claws scrabbled on the kitchen tile and he dashed to his master. I leapt from my seat to rush to the stairs, but Gary just stood where he was, his look transformed into one of intense concentration.
By the time I made it to the stairs, Evamae was at the bottom face down, her decrepit arms and legs splayed to all sides. Her white hair covered anything I could see of her face. Her cane was a few steps down from the landing. Incongruously, Barkley sat at her side and grinned, as if perversely pleased by the tragedy. Its expression sickened me.
This was my doing. I sent her up those stairs. Why didn’t I think to help her, or even go up and get the information myself? I just sat like an idiot in the kitchen in a pathetic fight with a mug of hot tea. Good lord, I was no help to anyone at all.
“Evamae?” I ventured.
Evamae spoke at full volume. “Could you help me up, Philip? I’m sure I’m a very amusing sight right now, but it really is rude to stare.”
“Oh,” I took a knee and grabbed her hand, helping her get her legs under her and stand up again. Barkley hopped onto all fours again and yapped, dancing all around. “Are you hurt?”
“Do I look hurt?” Evamae stood straight and put one arm up behind her head as if she were modeling for me. It boggled my mind – there was not a scratch on her. I realized I had not heard any thumping, either, like she had glided gracefully from the top of the steps to the lower floor.
She pressed past me to the kitchen before I could respond. I hurried after her and found her with her arms around her gigantic son, two heads taller than she. “You smell terrible, boy,” she muttered, “I want you to go take a bath as soon as you get a moment.”
“Yes, Ma.” Gary Cudgel mumbled, “Right away.”
When Gary was out of earshot, I asked Evamae, “If I may ask, what’s happening here?”
“Why, you’re welcome to ask, but I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I don’t understand how you fell down those steps without making a sound…” I trailed off.
Evamae smiled at me, waiting for more.
“Your dog seems to be getting yanked around by…” I couldn’t bring myself to say this. It was so absurd.
Evamae put her hand on mine. “My son is very special. Can we leave it at that, dear?”
“With the things he does, you don’t need to be making do on meager social security.”
Evamae maintained her smile, “Did we have more questions to get through?”
I sighed, and moved on. By the end of the interview, though, I had formulated a plan. When Gary came back into the room, I spoke directly to him, and his face lit up just as the smile evaporated from Evamae’s.
Evamae and Gary pulled into the parking lot of my apartment complex, taking the parking spot next to mine. The drive was an hour, and I knew I wouldn’t get another chance if this went south. I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw one of the miscreant gang members leaning against a brick wall, his hands in the pockets of his baggy jeans. I tapped on the driver window of Evamae’s hatchback, and she rolled it down. She stared daggers at me, but kept her mouth shut. “Gary,” I said to the man filling up the entire passenger seat, who looked like a boy on Christmas, “that’s a bad guy. Can you find his gun?”
Gary nodded eagerly and concentrated. I watched the gangster stand up, “what the fuck?” He looked all around him. “Get the hell off me!” I grinned.
I looked back at Gary, “put it on the roof.” I watched the gun rise from the back of his pants. He looked up and grasped for it, but it was already out of his reach. He cursed as he watched it make a hard angle towards the flat roof and fall down.
“Fucking ghosts, man! The fuck just happened!?” He whipped out his phone, “Yeah, man, a fuckin’ demon or some shit. it just came and put my gun on the roof. Fuck you, man. You take the rest of the shift.”
The young man stalked off and drove away. I motioned for Evamae and Gary to wait. Soon another car came out and an older, taller man with a gold chain around his neck went to the spot. He looked and saw me, “Hey, you, what’re you lookin’ at?” I shook my head and raised my hands. I slipped into the hatchback to watch through the window.
“Some crazy mothafuckas out here,” the man mumbled, but with a signal from me, he, too, was grasping for his gun as it rose to the roof. “Fuck, man!” He hurried to his car and drove away.
Gary looked back at me, and I gave him a thumbs-up. He grinned from ear to ear, “I’m a spiderman, Ma.”
“That’s right, dear” Evamae patted him on the shoulder, “I think it’s time to be going now. Say goodbye to Mr. Silver. You won’t be seeing him again.”
Luckily, the criminals seemed spooked enough to avoid my neighborhood entirely right away. I smiled quietly when folks mentioned how nice it was to have the neighborhood safe again. As you know, that wasn’t the end of it, though. A rumor started floating around the complex of a crime-fighting ghost. I didn’t think it would go anywhere, but people knew somehow that this ghost-man was linked to me.
I didn’t understand it until I saw the story on my local news, “Spirit-Lifter: Mysterious poltergeist cleans up neighborhood.” There was a video of the gun floating up out of the man’s pants and onto the roof, twice. Anyone who knew me would recognize the man in the middle of the video raising his hands and hiding in a hatchback. My cell phone started ringing.
Despite my better judgement, I accepted a spot on WUNC. “I can’t reveal who Spirit Lifter is, but he protects people. He does not use his powers for frivolous things like media appearances.”
I hoped that would make it stop, but my phone just kept ringing. One message was from The Late Night Show with Cynthia West. The offer was outrageous.
Evamae dropped all pretense of southern charm. “Why are you here again? I’m so close to getting Gary calmed down from all that nonsense with the guns.”
I mentioned the sum and her eyes widened. “Can we get it ahead?”
I was taken aback, “I don’t think they’ll like that. Why would you need it ahead?”
Evamae grit her teeth and scratched her head. “See if we can get it ahead. I’m not going to let anything happen to Gary.”
I didn’t like being shut out of whatever plan Evamae was cooking up, but I knew better than to argue. Somehow I managed to get us a quarter ahead, to Evamae’s great pleasure. Even just a third of a quarter of that money was more than I ever expected to see in my bank account, and if I invested wisely and wasn’t extravagant, I could certainly live off of it.
In New York City, it was 5:45. The show filmed at 6:00. An aide rushed into the prep room. She had a translucent pink clipboard that matched her phosphorescent hair. “Where’s Spirit Lifter?” she demanded. I had no idea. I could not control my shaking. At 5:55, Evamae arrived, “Thank God!” I exclaimed, but then I looked at her. She was wearing all black, including an old black baseball hat. Underneath, she had bleached the purple out of her hair, leaving it a ghostly white. I leaned close to hiss in her ear, “Where is Gary?”
Our bubblegum aide burst in, “Finally, you’re here. You’re Spirit Lifter, right? Please tell me you’re Spirit Lifter.”
“Yes,” Evamae smiled broadly, “That’s me. The Spirit Lifter herself.”
Cynthia was as stunning in person as on the screen. With short-cropped hair and thick-rimmed glasses over her elegantly aging face, she embodied beauty and wisdom. When she clasped my hand and looked in my eyes, I knew she was the only person on that stage who was genuine. On the guest couch, I shoved my hands into my lap to force them not to shake. I tried desperately to remember the clever lines I was going to deliver, how I would carefully work in my own honorable service in Afghanistan, but it all escaped me, and I barely had a moment to speak at all anyway. Evamae smiled and joked with the audience, deftly turning aside all questions of her identity, and they responded with laughter and cheers.
When Cynthia finally asked “Spirit Lifter” to show what she could do, Evamae beamed and threw her hat onto the stage. She withdrew from her pocket a length of fishing wire and a hook, and tossed it over the scaffolding so it hung down. With deft movements of her fingers, she maneuvered the hook underneath the hat and lifted it high up into the air. She even jiggled the hook and let the hat fall back onto her head. She grinned and put her hand behind her head, posing for the silent audience. Cynthia’s face smiled, but it had acquired a rigid quality. Everyone waited for Evamae to say “Just kidding!” and wheel out her real superpowers.
In a terse email that left little room for misinterpretation, the Late Night Show with Cynthia West informed me that I would not be receiving the rest of the money promised. I saw no reason to contest. Evamae had not said so much as her real name, so all the angry fan-mail and personal harassment went straight to me. She was clear with me – she didn’t care whether the furor died down, as long as I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut about her and Gary, who she said had been thrilled to see his mother on TV and didn’t understand or particularly care that he was not going to be a celebrity. They would live the rest of their days in obscure comfort, with more than enough funds to take care of him after she passed. She thanked me for everything I’d done for her family and encouraged me never to speak of or go anywhere near them again.
The rest is history. Writing from my little cottage in the woods, I am relieved to finally tell the truth. I am still inclined to regret with you all that Spirit Lifter passed away without sharing his talents with the world, but ultimately, that decision was not ours to make. I hope that his mother’s decision to keep his life small had been the best to keep it happy.