After He’s Gone
by Eugene Morgulis
Down at the town hall, everybody decided I should be the one to smash up the Invader’s statue. Folks in town call me Joe-Fix-It. I’m usually around doing odd jobs, helping mend a fence or changing a tire. And I’ve always been handy with a sledgehammer.
No sweat, I told them.
The statue had been toppled the night the radio broadcast of our victory went out. For a few days after, no one took credit, scared it might be another test to weed out the disloyal. But when it was clear the Invader was really gone, scores of men came out of the woodwork to brag that they’d been the ones responsible. Well. That was none of my concern. All I had to do was bust that bug face of his into gravel.
I got set up in the town square, where the statue once stood taller than the flagpole it had replaced. Now, its body lay in shambles, like ancient ruins. Thorax cracked. Wings shattered. But the face, that terrifying face remained intact, lying on the grass as big as a boulder. It frowned at me, as if it knew why I was there. And what are you gonna do about it, I thought.
I raised my sledgehammer high and brought it down with all my strength.
Thunk, went the hammer.
My swing left nothing but a pale scratch on the Invader’s stone mug. Even gone, he wouldn’t make it easy. I sighed, knowing I was in for a long day. That’s all right, I thought. A little hard work was nothing compared to ordeal we’d been through since the Invader’s fleet arrived. Maybe it’s one swing for each of the dead.
I hoped not.
I’d be here forever.
Dust filled the air. I tied a bandana over my mouth, like an outlaw. As if a little hankie could block out the years we all lived and breathed the Invader. Thick glasses protected my eyes from the chips flying off with every strike. Eyes that spent years assaulted by his face on the television, newsreels, and propaganda posters.
Already my hands felt raw. I cursed myself for forgetting my gloves and thought about running home to grab them. But then I looked into his eyes – those confident, segmented eyes. Like a cockroach that knows it can scurry behind the counter while you go grab your shoe. Damn the gloves, I told myself.
After an hour of labor, I’d only managed to break off one mandible and wear down his jawline a bit. I set down the hammer and poured water over my hands. White blisters were already budding. Defiantly, I flexed my fingers.
“Takin’ a break already, Joe?” I recognized Felix Garvey’s snide tone. Even at his friendliest, Felix liked to get his licks in. You know the type. Everyone’s favorite bully.
Felix walked up to the stone face and kicked it like a tire at the auto shop. “Ooh-wee,” he whistled. “Sucker must be harder’n granite.”
It’s pretty hard, I told him.
“You think it’s some kind’a space rock?”
It seemed like concrete to me, just a better way of mixing it that the Invader’s people had figured out. They were good at things like that. But I didn’t feel like arguing. Yeah, could be a space rock, I told him.
“Figures,” he snorted and stood there a moment, chewing on his thoughts. Then suddenly Felix screwed up his pink face and spat right in the Invader’s bulging eye. “Give that sum’bitch one for me, Joe.”
Thunk, went the hammer.
Felix hadn’t been so bold when the Invader’s troops came to town.
Heck, he practically fell over volunteering to be our local administrator. “Gotta go along to get along,” he’d said. The new authorities must’ve liked that, because they gave him a badge and a hand-held pain ray.
Felix had graduated high school with a college-level love of drink and a diploma that read suitable for light assembly. Supervision recommended. Well, he was doing the supervising now. Boy, how he took to it!
I remember Felix saying how the Invader’s—no, the Savior’s—brand of justice was just what this country needed. “Savior says that if you stop the criminals, you stop the crime. Simple, if you think about it.”
“I don’t know, Felix,” I had said carefully. When you disagree with a fella like that, you got to do it sideways. “Seems like there’s a lot more criminals these days.”
“Well, er, that’s exactly the point, Joe! That’s why we need the Savior to stop them.”
Huh. Neat trick.
Felix stopped the criminals all right. He “stopped” the Williams boy who spray-painted “BUGS LEAVE NOW” on the side of the laundromat. Left the poor kid with nerve damage so bad he could barely hold a pencil. Then he “stopped” Jim Williams, the boy’s father, when he complained. No one complained after that.
“Im-pun-it-ee.” Felix sucked the word like a jawbreaker.
“It’s better, Joe, admit it. I said admit it!” He’d give me those playful shoves that threatened something worse. “We finally got crime on the ropes. You don’t see no more homeless, do ya? And don’t all our ration boxes come with steak now? Well, mine do.” Har har.
Where’d that fine meat come from, Felix? I never asked.
“Now I know he’s a bit funny lookin’ with the antennae and all.” (I remember Felix lowered his voice for that remark) “But Savior’s no worse than the crooks in Washington.”
Back when there was a Washington.
I wonder if Felix remembered any of that. Who was I kidding? By next week he’d be telling folks he’d been part of the Resistance—bringing down the Invader from the inside. In a few years, I bet he’d even believe it.
But sure, Felix, I’ll give him one for you.
Felix headed back to his nice home. The old Williams place, in fact. I stayed and kept hammering at the eye.
Two hours later, the sun burned hot in the bare blue sky. I took off my flannel, my white undershirt soaked through with sweat. I’d managed to smash that bug’s eye into a gapping hollow. The effort had done a number on my hands. The fattest blisters tore open, and the red flesh below stung something fierce.
Run back and get your gloves, I told myself. Stop it before it gets worse. The patient face of the Invader watched me from the grass, daring me to keep going. I lifted the hammer.
Bells rang across the street as Church let out. A few dozen people emptied down the steps like clothes fresh from the wash. Fewer now that attendance was voluntary again.
Pastor Dan looked on from the top step. He saw me gawking and waved. I nodded and turned away.
Pastor Dan had always struck me as a good man. Maybe a bit rigid, but that’s how religious folks tend to be. That’s why I was so surprised when, right in the middle of one of his sermons, he declared for the Invader.
The Invader had been smart, cozying up to the clergy. He talked through the translator box about the importance of religion, saying how his people worshipped the same god. Folks liked that a lot.
Who could disprove it?
“The world’s been waiting for a Savior from the heavens,” Pastor Dan told us from the pulpit. “And don’t his head tentacles and jaw bristles look like long hair and a beard? Maybe they remind you of another savior we all know?” Wink, wink.
“Compare that to the freaky beatniks and godless Communists. Then tell me who’re the real invaders!”
About that time, I’d been doing some handy work around the rectory. Between chores, I leaned against a stone wall and had a smoke. The Pastor came out with his pipe, and we chatted a while. I’d asked him if he believed what he’d said about the Invader (though I didn’t call him that).
“Joe, do you remember what Jeremiah said?” he asked all fatherly. I shook my head like a dunce.
“Cursed be the man who trusts in humans.” Pastor Dan paused to let it sink in. “Democracy is a swell idea,” he explained, “but you can’t put your faith in man to do the right thing. No, you need a higher power. And that’s exactly what we have now. If you need proof, just think how we used to have those silly laws that said the state can’t support the church. Bunch of nonsense. The Savior comes in and cleans them all up. Now the funding flows. No strings! Packed pews every Sunday.”
What about the invasion? I’d asked.
“As Jesus himself said, Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth…but a sword.”
And disbanding Congress?
“That’s all politics.” Pastor Dan puffed his pipe. “The bible tells us, Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”
He had a quote for everything. Conquering planets? That’s “spreading the good word.” Forced labor in the salt flats? “You know what they say about idle hands.” Turning the Everglades into a hatchery for broods of millions? “Strong family values.”
I knew folks who’d scoff at the Invader’s newsreels and tut when Felix and his goon squad got out of line. But they’d never say a word against the Church. They’d go to services every week. We all did. And not just because we had to.
We were good at serving.
Maybe that’s why he picked us.
Pastor Dan retired to his Church. I kept hammering.
By afternoon, my hands hurt so bad I could barely hold my sledgehammer. I put it down and took a step back to admire my work. Half of the Invader’s face was now sunken and hollow. The other half lay as peacefully on the lawn as a head on a pillow. He looked right at me with his good eye, and a cold spike of fear ran down my spine, worse than any pain-ray.
I reached for the hammer, but pulled back, wincing from the pain in my hands. I kicked myself for not getting my gloves when I had the chance. Idiot. Now it was too late.
“You doin’ okay, Joe?”
Rose’s soft voice made me tense up. I forgot about my burning hands. Slowly, I turned to see her smiling behind me, toting a grocery bag like a baby on her hip.
A few years back, Rose stood on that same spot, holding a white bullhorn and railing against the Resistance that had sprung up in the big cities. Women Stand with the Savior read the sash between her breasts.
“The Savior’s people plum worship their women,” she’d once told me over sandwiches in the park. “They don’t have a lot of them – not 50-50 like us. But the ones they do have are all queens! Isn’t that marvelous? They get to sit around all day long and make babies!”
I think they’re eggs, I’d said.
“Well, where do you think the babies come from?!” Rose laughed, a bubbling, full-bodied laugh that sent my head buzzing like a cloud of locusts.
“Maybe their scientists can figure out how to make us like that. Can you imagine me with a dozen egg-babies? I could use an egg carton instead of a stroller!” She let loose that delirious, too-loud laugh again. “I bet they’ll crack it eventually. They’re so smart!” She took a vigorous bite of her sandwich.
“And I don’t mean like those smarties that used to try and tell us how to live. No, not like them. Talking about husbands at home wearing aprons, while wives slave away in factories. Kids growing up soft as marshmallows. Everybody…mixing.” She made a face. “If that’s progress, you can have it! I was raised better than that.”
I remembered enough about Rose’s father not to say anything about how she was raised.
“But there’s no need to worry about that anymore. The Savior’s going to fix us, Joe. He’s going to take us back to the way it was supposed to be.”
I asked what made her so sure.
“The Savior’s saved lots of worlds. It’s right there in his name. So, he must know what he’s doing. You’ve seen the pictures from those other planets – everything’s so clean and everyone’s so happy. It’ll be better, Joe, just you wait.”
I thought back to that moment, sitting there with Rose in the bright sun, my head foggy with the scent of perfume and baloney. She’d been so certain, it even got me saying, Yeah, I guess we’ll see.
That’s all it took.
I guess we’ll see.
For a split-second I’d imagined a future with Rose and the Savior. The messes of the last few centuries had proven that we couldn’t govern ourselves, so maybe it was time to try something new. Wasn’t there a chance that I’d been too hard on folks like Felix and Pastor Dan – good people I’d known all my life? They must’ve seen something I didn’t. Maybe I was the stupid or the stubborn one. Maybe I should try to be like Rose. Rose with the hope in her eyes and the smear of mustard on her smiling red lips, talking about a future bathed in golden light that she could almost touch.
Like I said, it was only for a split-second. But I never got over it. And I never forgave her, even standing over the Invader’s broken body.
Rose craned her neck sideways, bringing her face level with the Invader’s. “Looks like you been workin’ hard.”
Yes ma’am, I mumbled through my bandana, which hid the black look I was giving her.
Rose laughed her famous laugh. “Look at you callin’ me ‘ma’am’ like I’m some old maid.” She swatted playfully at my shoulder. I jerked away, so she wouldn’t touch me. Then she noticed my hands.
“Joe, you’re bleeding!”
I looked in shock. The blisters had fully burst now and ran with blood that dripped onto the gravel. Softly, I tried to make a fist, but the pain was too much.
Rose put down her groceries. She plucked the bandana from my face with a mother’s deft and made to bandage my right hand. But, to me, her touch was poison. I shoved her away, leaving a dark bloody print on her white dress.
Rose looked at me with wide eyes, her face hardening when she understood what I thought of her. She grabbed her bag and walked off stiff-legged.
The Invader and I watched her go.
With Felix and Pastor Dan, my anger had been softened by pity. They were weak men, greedy and callous. Not Rose though. She had believed. She’d believed so hard and true that she made me believe too, even if just for a moment. Felix’s bullying hadn’t worked on me. Pastor Dan’s platitudes hadn’t either. Rose’s hope had. That’s why I hated her. I hated her as much as I hated the face on the grass.
Shaking, I took a cigarette from my pack and managed to light it. My fingers left bloody prints on the white paper, so every drag came with the faint taste of metal. I could have gone home, but instead I sat down with my back against what remained of the face. Just me and the Invader, taking in the night like old friends. Crickets sang. Fireflies blinked in and out of existence. The smoke danced in the breeze. This peace felt sweet, normal. Yet somehow undeserved.
I learned about our victory over the radio. Turned out that scientists working for the Resistance cooked up some kind of biological weapon that made the Invader’s fleet turn tail and run. Just like that it was over.
Thank goodness for our heroes. We gave them parades and medal ceremonies. Boon times for the tickertape business. Everyone celebrated. Even those who had no right to.
I suppose it’s hard to rebuild if you’re busy pointing fingers. Or maybe there were just too many fingers to point. No one wanted to admit that most had been complicit, by action or by silence. Who’s going to indict us all? I imagine the history books will be gentle. They’ll write about one crushing defeat followed by one redeeming victory. Won’t mention the millions of defeats in every moment of every day when we just shrugged and went about our business. Hell, we never stopped surrendering.
And what about you, Joe-Fix-It? the Invader’s voice, his true voice, filled my head. When a streetlight broke during a public hanging, you replaced the bulb. When a door got kicked in during a raid, you installed a new jamb. Need a fresh coat of paint over that bloodstain? Joe will be there in a jiff. Going along to get along, and rendering onto whoever, and making sure Rose’s pamphlets are stacked nice and neat with a rock on top so the wind doesn’t take them. That was you, Joe.
Shut up, I begged.
You could have kept that streetlight dark – to help the Resistance do its secret work. You could have reinforced the door – to delay the Invader’s troops even a minute. You could have left the bloodstain – to show everyone the truth. Why didn’t you do that, you god-damned coward!? Why didn’t you do throw Rose’s pamphlets into the fire where they belonged?
Tears ran from my eyes. I couldn’t even lift my hands to wipe them. Just another pile of rubble amidst the ruin of the square. I wondered if there were other Joes (or Tonys or Tommys or Clays) standing in squares like this, hammering away at their shame? How many statues of the Invader were being swept under the rug? Would we all get off so easy?
I stood up over the half-broken face, seeing it differently. The top part that I’d smashed – the gaping eye, the sunken cheek – it looked exactly like a human skull. And the bottom half, terrible and untouched, became a reminder.
I decided to leave it.
Perhaps one day, the grass would grow high enough to cover it up. Maybe by then we’d all have earned the right to forget. But not yet. Not Felix, not Pastor Dan, not Rose, and not me.
As the sun disappeared, I turned in for the night, leaving my hammer there beside the ruin. I wouldn’t swing it again for a long time. Not while there was still blood on my hands.