Monday, 23 May 2011

Praxis and the Human Band-Aid

 a story

You won't remember this, but someone had to fuck the superheroes.

And I'm not talking about the pouty, pretty creatures they used to pose with in public, the Lois Lanes and Mary-Janes. Those dames were just for show. They'd have broken in half, believe me, right at their Miss Dior wasp waists. It took a special kind of female to act as blotting paper for all the excess otherworldly testosterone superheroes could exude. Think about it - if you could bend iron rivets with your bare hands, lift trucks to free whimpering infants, and scale tall buildings in a single leap, would you be satisfied by a quick bout of orthodox in-out activity? No way. Furthermore, the satisfaction of the superheroes was considered a national security issue. If their tiny little brains were marinating in untapped sexual energy, and their tights were all clogged up with unshot loads, they might not be able to focus on the job in hand. They were liable to start busting up foreign embassies and dropping well-dressed men in reservoirs just to work off some tension.

Which is where we came in. They called us superhookers - but personally I found that a little derogatory, considering the delicate and significant nature of our work. We were employees of the govenment (that's right - the President was my pimp). So we were clean, we were licensed, and we were highly, highly trained. We had to be. Could a superhero trust any chick off the street, not only to take on a physique designed for vanquishing evil in all its forms, but also to stay the hell away from the press afterwards? Way back, the gutter press used to heave with ill-dressed sluts crowing about nights of passion with The Hulk, or the Silver Surfer, or some intriguing combination of X-Men. And you can bet your ass that two-thirds of those dumb girls ended up in Jacuzzis with supervillains, being promised plastic surgery in exchange for names and numbers. When they regulated the system and clamped down on fraternization with civilians, those girls went right back to fucking movie stars and senators, which was safer for everyone - including them. A horny superhero was no easy ride, if you'll pardon the turn of phrase. I used to keep a tiny nub of Kryptonite in my purse to slow Superman down when he got too enthusiastic. It  wasn't just the brute strength, either. When Spiderman got excited, those sticky webs would fly out of him every which way; I went through every dry-cleaner in town trying to shift the residue. And anyone who's had an ice-cream headache can imagine the painful legacy of going down on Iceman.

Not that they were all glamour boys, you understand. There were always plenty of low-ranking superheroes who didn't get a lot of press attention. Most of them did standard kid-in-a-well jobs, although there were those whose skills were more specific. Consider if you will the very bottom of the pile: Mr Thesaurus, who dealt with synonym emergencies, or Bonus Man, who alerted shoppers to special offers they might not otherwise have noticed. That type of superhero was pretty much like an ordinary guy, except for he could go a little longer and contact Washington through his wristwatch. They were nice, actually - still grateful, which was more than you'd ever get from some swell-chested primadonna who had his own press office and put out a calendar every year.

No-one would believe it now, but I really did take pride in my job. I was one of the best. They'd ask for me by name. Special occasion? Call Praxis. As you can probably imagine, the superheroes used to absorb some pretty retro ideas about male/female relations - if you had a pair of tits, you might as well have been tied to a railtrack - so they favoured voluptuous, feminine girls. Back then my figure was a license to print money.

Still, by the time I met The Human Band-Aid, I was starting to feel like time was firmly on someone else's side. When the phone rang that fateful day, I was standing naked in front of the full-length mirror, assessing the damage. I used to do that a lot - and every time, there were a few more pounds on my haunches and a few more dimples on my thighs. Part of my appeal was always my genuine D-cup silicone-frees, but they'd started to look as if they could do with some surgical encouragement. I wasn't feeling too optimistic as I reached for the receiver.

'Miss Murgatroyd? Hilly. I'm delighted to say I have a very special assignment for you.'
'How are you, Hilly? It's been a while.'
'Yes it has, Miss Murgatroyd. Can I tell you your assignment?'
'Please do. I was about ready to heal up over here.'
'Quite. We'd like you to accompany The Human Band-Aid to tomorrow night's function, if you think you could.'
'I think I could. But tomorrow night? Isn't he -'
'Oh yes. And you're his date. You won the jackpot. There will be media attention, so be sure to dress appropriately. Meet his assistant at the Lopsthorne Hotel at nineteen hundred hours, please. She will handle all the details. There's just one other thing, Miss Murgatroyd.'
'I've been reviewing the records and you don't seem to be very up to date with your Psych tests.'
'Oh... really? Did I miss one?'
'Try three, Miss Murgatroyd. I've scheduled one for you tomorrow at nine a.m. and if you don't show, you can consider yourself on suspension.'
'OK. Got it. Um - any special requirements for the Band-Aid guy?'
'He prefers low heels. Goodbye.'
'Never less than a pleasure, Hilly.'

We had monthly psychiatric examinations, along with sexual health check-ups, pregnancy tests and weigh-ins. I told you the Government took our work seriously, didn't I? They monitored our bust measurements; they demanded to know our dreams. Well, it made sense: some of the stuff we had to deal with was pretty weird, and there was a certain degree of emotional loop-the-loop. Also, and more importantly as far as they were concerned, they had to make sure we weren't dabbling in the dark side. Any hint that one of their girls had a mild attraction to weapons, or a fascination for Russian guys with big pointy eyebrows, and she'd be off the job quicker than The Amazing One-Minute Man.

Most of us didn't particularly like taking the Psych tests. The older you get, the less comfortable it is whipping out your dirty laundry. I knew I would have to come up with something pretty good to avoid that morning appointment, but first of all, I had to call Vermillion and tell her about my date.

'Honey! The guy with the healing hands? I was just reading about him in Pex magazine. He is such a cutie! And tomorrow night's gonna be big for him, from what I hear.'
'Sure is. Not bad for an old broad, huh?'
'Sweetie, don't even. You know you're fabulous. All those little twenty-year-olds with their boob jobs and braces will be spitting mad when they hear about this. This is gonna put you right back on the frontline.'
'That's if Hilly can restrain herself from putting my ass on suspension.'
'Suspension? You? Why the fuck? That would be like suspending... the Queen from Buckingham Palace! What did you do?'
'I missed a couple of Psych tests.'
Vermillion took a breath. 'Is this about what I think it's about? You have to let it go. It's so fucking dangerous. Remember what happened to Gloria Globes.'
There was a moment of silence as we both contemplated Gloria Globes, a legend among our number until she got taken hostage by Dr. Despicable and quickly decided he wasn't quite so despicable after all. Following a ten-day stand-off at his cave in the mountains, Gloria and the bad Doctor came out to face the world, and died hand-in-hand under a confetti storm of FBI bullets.
'I won't do a Gloria, Milly. This is just a glitch.'
'I hope so, honey. Be careful. Hell, even the good guys are dangerous right now. I heard that some girl landed up in the hospital with a fractured pelvis thanks to The Battering Ram.'
'God, did she miss a remedial class, or what?'
'I know. Strictly manual and oral attention for guys who specialise in the redirection of hurricanes.'
'I guess I won't have to worry about injuries tonight.'
'Guess not. Think he cures menstrual cramps?'
'I'll ask him.'

The Human Band-Aid was generally acknowledged to be fucking fantastic. He had blond wavy hair, like some kind of dandy Chaucerian knight, and fat caramel muscles bulging under his suggestive flesh-tone costume. He could also knit together ruptured skin with a single touch of his big knotty hands, which is a fine addition to anyone's resume. And every snitch in town was spreading the word that the following night, he would be named New Face Of The Year at the annual dinner and awards ceremony held by the Federal Board of Extra-Human Order-Promoting Superpeople. (The word 'crime-fighting' was in there originally, but it was dropped due to political pressure to play down the violent aspect of the superheroes' work). This was basically a guarantee of legendary status. From then on, The Human Band-Aid would be getting all the big jobs. His action figure would be on every little boy's Christmas list - and I'd be on his arm! The future was so damn bright, I had new crow's feet just from squinting at it.

It took me three hours to get ready. I wasn't taking any chances. I knew that if some bitchy gossip columnist caught the glint of a grey hair, or invited readers to phone in and guess my weight, I'd be all washed up by breakfast. So everything loose was strapped down or bolstered up; everything stubbly was plucked bald and polished to a high gloss; everything flaky was richly moistened with heavy-smelling unguents. The dress was kind of retro-ironic - Wonderwoman red and blue with a corset structure and the cutest little cape. I hoped this might help the editors out with their headlines: The New Boy Wonder Meets His Wondergirl, that kind of thing. (Robin would probably sue, but then hardly a day went by without him suing some poor sucker for misusing his trademark or casting aspersions on his pure, noble, platonic bond with his boss.) Seems funny now, but even after (whisper it) twenty-odd years in that line of work, I was still susceptible to the odd romantic fantasy. A spark between myself and Mr. Wonderful; a clandestine association spiralling onward through the years. Superheroes weren't supposed to fall in love, of course, but it wasn't unheard of. I mean, Lindy Plantagenet and The Cannonball Kid carried on like a pair of turtle doves for six years, but because they were both considered safe and steady individuals, a blind eye was kindly turned.

My efforts were such that by 18.27 hours, I felt like I could have slain a man at a hundred paces using only my ass.
By 19.18, I knew why The Human Band-Aid preferred low heels.
Still, by 21.40, munchkin or not, he was officially New Face Of The Year.
By 02.15, the face of the New Face Of The Year was between my thighs.
And by 02.21, his dick was curled up in my hand like a sleepy baby rattlesnake, and his tears were causing some unsightly buckling on the surface of my Linda Carter shoulder pads.

'You're crying? But you guys don't... you can't...'
'I know, goddamnit! We're not supposed to cry and we're sure as hell not supposed to be...'
'Impotent. I was getting to that.'
'It's all such bull!' He succumbed to a fresh fit of sobbing, and I gently shifted his head off my dress. We were in his hotel room, which would have been a truly beautiful confection of gossamer drapes, calla lilies and embroidered pillowslips, if he hadn't tipped his belongings out all over the floor like a disgruntled teen on laundry day, and kicked a hole in the bathroom wall. He was younger than I had expected, and much less handsome; his front teeth poked forward like little arrowheads and he had a lazy eye. He was acting kind of drunk. He'd had his fair share of champagne at the awards, but that shouldn't have been an issue: under normal circumstances, it took a tankerload of tequila to get a superhero tipsy. As for the dick thing, that was just bizarre. Sorry to be crude and all, but I hadn't had a penis resist my attentions in seventeen years (not since Vladimir The Corroder poisoned Pantherboy and he started to die while I was blowing him). I'd forgotten what a flaccid one felt like - that weird, chewed-gum texture, that helpless, beseeching droop.
'What do you think is wrong?' I gently asked him, before remembering that I was a hooker, not a therapist, and adding, 'Maybe if I took off the dress..?'
'No, don't Praxis... DON'T!' he retorted with insulting zeal. 'You think you could just lie here a bit and talk to me? I don't get to talk to anyone.' Sensing my reluctance, he made a judicious appeal to my avarice. 'C'mon... you're getting paid, aren't you? What have you got to lose?'

So I got two beers from the minibar, drew the starchy lavender-scented counterpane around me, and tried not to let my wounded pride spoil this special night of ours. I sure as hell didn't want to leave without some credible explanation for his failure to perform. Otherwise I knew I would spend the next three days crying into the bathroom scale.

'What is it that's such bull?' I began, in my best nurturing voice. He made the face of a small boy staring into the sun, and gestured as if to say: it's too much, too voluminous to ever express. 'All of it,' he said. 'The whole damn racket. Having to do this. It's all totally fake - you must know that? Hell, two hours after I pose for pictures with some Indonesian arms dealer in a headlock, he's having cocktails on the White House lawn. It's all for show - they just put us up front to distract the public while they get on with the usual bribery and corruption behind the scenes. We're decoys is all. Decoys in fuckin' ugly leotards.' He snorted back phlegm and took a deep pull of beer. I've got to admit, at this point I was shocked. It's not like I was ever the most patriotic kid in the class, but there are some things you rarely hear spoken out loud, and in my twenty years of fucking superheroes, no-one had voiced this type of shit. Everyone knew there were crackpot theorists out there, who swore the superheroes were actually enemy agents, or government stooges, or emissaries of Satan at the very least. But most rational folks didn't give credence to those stories. I mean, there's enough evil in the world to get worked up about, isn't there, without turning your anger and suspicion against guys who are expressly designed to do good?

'It can't be a bad thing, though,' I implored him, 'to have healing powers. How can that be a bad thing?'
'That in itself is not a bad thing,' he said, wrapping the hotel robe around him and flopping down next to me on the bed. 'It's great. It was great when I first started, before anyone knew, out in the country... I used to zap my own cuts and bruises, mend baby birds' legs, help my mom with her migraines. But as soon as someone reported me to the Board, that was it. I was a government resource. Every move I've made since then has been strictly regulated. From who I fight to what I eat.'

It used to be that if someone you knew exhibited signs of superpowers, you had a legal obligation to report it to the Board. Knowingly harbouring a suspected superhero was a pretty serious offence. Then again, why would anyone want to hide that kind of talent, right? 'But they're so good to you. And everyone loves you. Everyone wants to be a superhero,' I said. I was suffering Santa Claus levels of disillusionment.
'Sure, they give us all this money, status, chicks.' He indicated me, and I felt slightly pleased to be counted as a perk. 'But it's just so that we'll stay docile. Sure, most of the guys dig it. They're young and they're vain and it's good fun, you know? Putting on a big show, getting your picture taken all the damn time. It's not like it's a bad life.'
'But it's fake as shit. We've got no choice about what we do. It's not like I get a distress call and make up my own mind to fly out to do good. I get a call and I get told where to be and when.'
'Just like me,' I marvelled.
'I guess. We're in the same game.'

Both of us thought this over for a time. We were cosied up like children and I suddenly thought: if I'd had a brother it might have felt like this. Hansel and Gretel. Praxis and The Human Band-Aid.
'What's your real name?' I asked him.
I lay back on the bed, a little drunk, a little blown away by what Lyle had said. It had never struck me that superheroes could get cynical too. It seemed OK to tell him anything now. So I yawned and said, 'I've got stretch marks on my tits and I haven't even had a baby. Now THAT's a fucking injustice. Why don't you channel all those energies of yours into stopping nature from draining me of my livelihood?'
He sighed deeply, and took me a little more seriously than I had intended. 'We can't do that stuff, Praxis. You know we can't. Moving trains, sure; nuclear warheads, maybe. But not time. I can't stop time. I can't make you more beautiful.'
'You don't think I'm beautiful enough?'
'Oh, Christ. I thought the whole attraction of hookers was that they didn't come out with that kind of shit.'
'No, dear - the attraction of hookers is that you get to fuck them any which way you please, and that seems to present something of a problem, so quit coming on like you're some fucking wise old stud.'
We looked at each other and then we laughed. It was nice; I didn't know when I'd last lain in bed with a man and not fucked him, let alone laughed instead. I got another beer. He glanced at the clock by the bed and made a whining sound.
'Tomorrow at ten I have an appointment to kick ass. It'll be the biggest thing I've ever done and... I don't want to do it.'
'Who's the lucky villain?'
'The biggest one of all. The Cuddles.'
We'd established this weird, uninhibited rapport, and I guess I couldn't prevent the blush from seeping all over my face and neck. He cocked an eyebrow. The thing is, he'd just hit on my equivalent of Kryptonite. The Cuddles: my secret weakness. My Achilles heart. The Cuddles is a major Mafioso, so-named because he was built like a brick snowman, and he'd been known to hug people to death. He's six foot six, three hundred pounds, with arms like legs and a puffy, beat-up boxer's face. And ever since our eyes had met across the carnage during a standoff between his gang and my date a year before, not an hour had gone by that I hadn't thought of him.

'Praxis. What's going on?'
I don't know why I trusted Lyle, but somehow I couldn't or didn't want to lie.
'The Cuddles is my big secret, Lyle. I'm in love with him. It's ruining everything for me. It could cost me my job. Could cost me everything, if they find out.'
Lyle was looking at me quizzically, processing this. 'I guess you've noticed... the way he smells.'
Like cigars and gunpowder and horse sweat. 'Yeah, I know.'
'And the size of him.'
Six foot six, three hundred pounds. I look like the Sugarplum Fairy next to him. 'Yeah.'
'And those rings under his eyes like he's got a liver complaint. And he fact that he's purest, distilled evil.'
'I know, OK? I know it's weird. But everyone has someone they can't resist, even if it's totally wacko and illogical. I can't help it. And I know he feels it too. Sometimes I'll see him someplace, at the back of a bar or cruising in some fancy armoured vehicle, and something just zings between us like static electricity. He cancels out every other man I've ever met. '
'And that's a lot of men.'
'Fuck you, Elastoplast boy.'

So that's how it happened. That's how Praxis Murgatroyd, superhooker, missed her fourth compulsory Psych test and wound up on the run, in a Wonderwoman dress, riding shotgun in a borrowed Merc with the New Face Of The Year. Two outlaws with a trunkful of stolen hotel towels (it was his first small act of rebellion - well, his second, after leaving his radar wristwatch on the nightstand). The deal was that The Cuddles and his gang would hold up a major city bank, and shoot a couple of clerks. The Human Band-Aid would arrive in the nick of time, put the clerks back together with his magic hands, subdue the gang and await the authorities, all to the tune of rapturous public applause. In reality, Lyle told me, the authorities had planned the whole thing, with the co-operation of their close business associate The Cuddles. It was a stunt to emphasise how tough they were on malfeasants, to quell any rumours that they were in cahoots with organised crime, and to prove what a worthy use of taxpayer dollars the New Face Of The Year would be. I was having trouble accepting the fact that all the fights and feats I'd been witness to all the years, all the tales of derring-do I'd cooed over in bed, had been nothing but smoke, snake oil and mirrors - but the minibar booty in the glove compartment kind of helped. Besides, I felt freer than I had in years. I hadn't even combed my hair, or checked for extra chins in the mirror.

When we pulled up outside the Vertigo City Grand Union Bank, we immediately noticed the creepy-looking underlings lurking outside, eyeing the sky for any incoming do-gooders. We had to act fast and slick. We knew the government guys would already be on alert, because Lyle hadn't checked in that day, or responded to any of their calls. I knew Hilly and Vermillion would both be calling me too, so I'd turned my beeper off. Since I'd missed the Psych appointment, I was on suspension anyway - I considered myself off duty. Not that that was going to stop me from using my government-licensed firearm, or brandishing it at least. I'd never had to use it before - even owning it had freaked me out - but now I was ready for anything. I was just rushing like crazy on the adrenaline, and the promise of seeing The Cuddles again.

Lyle slid deep down in his seat. I kissed the top of his head, belted my fur tight around my outfit and trotted off up the steps of the bank, trying to look like a normal woman on her way to pay in one of the housekeeping cheques she was saving up in order to take the kids and leave her slob of a husband. As I pushed open the revolving doors I smiled wryly at one of the Board's public information notices - a diagram of puny stick figures ducking respectfully out of the path of a musclebound figure in a fluttering cape, with the words HELP THEM TO HELP US.

I knew The Cuddles was there right away. Before I even saw him, propped against the mortgage advice counter with a copy of the City Star held up to his face, I caught that rank circus smell of his, and my heart did a quick flip. No time for lingering glances, though: I knew he was poised to make the signal to his guys. I marched right over and pressed the barrel of my little .45 into his spongy gut.

He lowered the paper, with the insouciance of a man who came nose to belly with a gun every day of the working week.
'Praxis Murgatroyd,' he said.
Over the course of a year, these were the first words he'd spoken directly to me. His voice was like a sealion's bark.
'What the fuck?'
'I've gotta tell you, Cuddles,' I purred, as Cuddles's henchmen clocked the situation and started to advance. 'Your gang is looking kinda raggedy. How d'you feel about joining a new one?'
To his guys I called out, 'Keep back - I've got a loaded gun in his stomach.' The cashiers and customers began to panic and race around.
'Are you going to shoot me?' the Cuddles asked. I could see the perspiration standing out around his big, broad nose. 
'Baby, come with me and I'll shoot you till you beg for more.'
'What do you want?'
'Out of the racket. Don't you?'
The henchmen had formed a semi circle behind me. The customers and staff had all dropped to the floor, though no-one had told them to. I knew we had a bit of time, since the police would sit tight to give The Human Band-Aid a chance to do his work. I snapped the safety catch. The Cuddles and I looked into one another's eyes until I thought I'd melt all over the marble floor. Alarms were going off, but from where I was at, they sounded like violins. And then one of the henchmen took a chance and blew a bullet right into my lower back. It certainly was a day for new experiences. The shock and impact caused me to pull the trigger on the .45, and Cuddles and I fell together, me howling as loud and shrill as a cat at night, his arms clutching at me, blood pooling between my mink coat and his $6000 suit.

Out in the car, Lyle The Human Band Aid heard the shots and knew something had gone wrong. By 09.56, he'd made his heroic entrance and thrown each of the four henchmen into different corners of the bank. The bystanders had picked their heads up off the floor, quit praying and started cheering him on. No-one knew quite what had happened or whose side I was on, but they sure as hell trusted Lyle to do the right thing. More fool them. He laid those warm hands of his on our wounds and I felt all the pain radiate right on out of me, like petroleum burning off the surface of a lake. By 10.02, Lyle had carried both of us out to the car - and the alert had gone out all over town that there was a renegade superhero on the run. By 10.27, we were racing away from Vertigo City, Lyle singing at the top of his voice and me locked in a wet smooch with The Cuddles in the back seat. As we crossed the state line, I threw my head back and yelled: 'I'm forty-two!'
The Human Band-Aid happily rejoined, 'I'm gay!'
And The Cuddles cried, 'I hate the sight of blood!'

Someone had to fuck the superheroes, like I said. And that's how we did it. By the end of that day, the chairman of the Board had resigned in disgrace, independent factions of self-governing superheroes had sprung up nationwide, and a whole lot of girls in my line of work had woken up and asked themselves whether blow jobs were really part of their patriotic duty.

It's not that things were all bad, the way they were. I mean, the old system held together, a lot of people got rich off of it, and I guess at least a couple of rustic peasant hamlets got saved from avalanches. Sure, things are pretty chaotic now that superpowers are unregulated, and can crop up in the most unlikely places. Plus - needless to say - plenty of the guys stayed right on the government payroll. But now at least we know. We're free. I'll tell you something else, baby, since you've listened so attentively thus far: having a sitter with healing hands made all the difference when you were teething. And we still use those towels.

This was published by Canongate in the anthology Writing Wrongs in, I don't know, 2001 or something.

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