by Doc Quantum
“I fought Superman.”
Johnny took a moment before glancing to his left to see a rough-looking man staring back at him intensely. The man wore a proud, almost defiant expression on his ruddy face, the skin of which looked rather leathery. His cheekbones were high with pits below each, while his eyes seemed sunken in somewhat beneath a broad brow, his left eye seemingly smaller than his right due to a fold of skin over it from a past injury that hadn’t healed properly. His red hair was cropped short and uneven, as if he’d taken a buzzer to it himself an hour before and didn’t have the patience to do a good job about it. He sat somewhat hunched over the bar and wore a cheap-looking, stained sports jacket that seemed too small for his frame. He had obviously once been in good shape, and he still had the muscular frame to show it, but a sheen of fat and a slight beer belly gave the man an air of sad mediocrity. The smell on his breath of too many drinks that evening enhanced that air. Johnny couldn’t help but notice how the man took the seat next to him a few minutes earlier, but he’d done his best to ignore him despite his discomfort; after all, there were several empty stools on either side of him, but this fellow had strangely chosen the seat next to him. Obviously, the man wanted to talk.
Doing his best to keep from rolling his eyes, Johnny muttered, “Yeah?” in a disinterested way and took another sip of the pint of Guinness in front of him.
“Yup,” the ruddy man continued, needing no further encouragement to start talking. “Me an’ him go way back. I’m one’a his rogues’ gallery, ya know.”
Johnny chuckled. He couldn’t help himself. It was the way the man had put such emphasis on the words rogues’ gallery, as if it somehow made him sound intelligent. It had the opposite effect. He looked back at the man for a moment and said, “What, are you Brainiac or something?”
If the ruddy man noticed that Johnny was mocking him, he didn’t seem to notice. “Naw, naw, I wasn’t no Brainiac. Never was all that smart to begin with, tell ya the truth. Naw, I didn’t make the headlines all that often or nothin’. Gave Superman a run for his money, though, I tell ya. Yeah, he ain’t so great. Had a hell of a laugh when that kryptonite rock fell on Metropolis back in ’85. Serves the %@&$ing faggot right.”
The young man’s curiosity was beginning to be piqued despite his distaste for the ruddy man’s choice of expressions. He straightened his back as he sat on his barstool and turned to face the man, a frown on his face as if studying him. Johnny was in his early twenties but looked even younger, his baby-face and blonde hair doing little to distinguish his age. He couldn’t grow a beard like some of his friends had, either; he had no stubble — he never had any stubble. This night he wore only a plain white T-shirt with a blue padded vest over top that and a pair of dark tan corduroy pants, with a belt buckle and a pair of Adidas runners for good measure. Johnny had been feeling restless this evening and dropped in to this local dive on a spontaneous whim while passing by. He was looking for something; he always seemed to be looking for something, but he was never sure what that was.
“So what’s your handle, then?” Johnny asked the man.
The ruddy man’s eyes dropped, and he reached for his beer, muttering something into it a moment before gulping down the last of it and refilling it from a pitcher. It was Budweiser; there was no accounting for taste.
Johnny’s frown deepened as he leaned in. “What was that?”
The ruddy man sighed as he looked at Johnny, then said defiantly, “I was called the Purple Pile-Driver.”
Johnny stared at him blankly.
“Ya know? The… the Purple Pile-Driver? Had a purple costume? With a force-field helmet on my head?” The man’s eyes were almost pleading.
“Oh. Ohhh,” Johnny finally said, feigning memory of such a character. “Uh-huh. The Purple Pile-Driver. Oh, right. Yeah. I, uh, I remember you now. You… you did that… that thing. Right? Against Superman. In, uh, in Metropolis.” Johnny quickly looked away and took another sip of his Guinness.
“Yep, that was me,” the man replied proudly, raising his chin somewhat as if happy to get the recognition. “I kicked Superman’s @$$ but good.”
Johnny murmured in response. He wasn’t sure what to say, but he was confident now that this guy had made up the whole story. After all, who in his right mind would ever call himself the Purple Pile-Driver? The young man was bored, though, so he was willing to listen to the man’s yarn. He was always up for a story, even if it was poorly told.
“So how did you become the… Purple Pile-Driver?” Johnny asked, his tone dripping with sarcasm.
“It was kinda sudden, actually,” the ruddy man said, lost in thought. He said nothing for a few moments before suddenly coming back to present-day reality. “Hey, what did you say your name was, again?”
“I didn’t. But it’s Johnny.”
The man held his hand out to him. “Pleased to meetcha, Johnny. My dad’s name was John. It’s a good name, that. I’m Barry Giffen.” Johnny shook Barry’s hand, which was rough from years of work.
“Barry, huh?” said Johnny. “I’ve always wondered if that’s short for something, like Bartholomew, or…”
“Naw, naw, naw. It’s short for nothin’. Just an Irish name. My mother named me after her father, who emigrated to America in the ’20s, just after the first world war. Yep. Barry Mulligan. He worked the rackets during Prohibition and got himself killed in the ’30s.”
“Was he rubbed out by the Mob, or shot by the cops or the FBI, or something?”
Barry guffawed. “Naw, he just stepped into an open manhole in Metropolis and broke his neck. Awful shame. Sure left my grandma in the lurch. But anyways, you want t’hear about my career as the Purple Pile-Driver, don’tcha? As I said, it came about kinda sudden. I’d gotten into a lotta trouble growing up. My dad, John Giffen, was about forty years older than my mom. They met during the war, when my mom was doing construction work on account’a most of the men being off fighting the Japs and the Germans. My dad was one of the Metropolis City Councilmen.”
Johnny’s eyebrows raised involuntarily. “Really?”
“Yeah. My mom said they met when he was passing by one of the construction sites one day. I guess they just hit it off despite the age difference. Anyway, my mom got pregnant, and my dad was just about going to marry her, but he died of a heart attack before they could get everything all arranged. Awful shame, too. There was a big funeral and everything. It was in all the papers. My mom showed me his picture in the obituary whenever I asked who my dad was.
“It was kinda strange, though. She never let me read the obituary; just look at the picture. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I looked it up on microfiche at the library. The article didn’t mention nothing about my mom an’ me. I guess it was because he was already married, an’ he didn’t have enough time to get a divorce to marry my mom. She didn’t mention any of that to me, though. An’ I didn’t get a chance to ask her about it on account’a her death back in ’82.
“After reading my dad’s obituary, I looked into it a bit and found out that he and his wife had had other kids, a couple of sons and a daughter. I looked them up once while I was on parole, but they were just a bunch of @$$holes. Threatened to send the cops after me if I didn’t leave ’em alone. Tell ya the truth, I couldn’t see no family resemblance. They were all pencil-necked types. Makes me wonder if my dad’s wife had been cheating on him with some accountant or something. Maybe that’s why he was gonna leave her for my mom. She was a real woman. Real tough, too. I always wondered what it would’a been like if my dad had been around when I was growing up. Maybe I wouldn’t’a gotten into crime at all. Maybe I would’a made something of myself. I could’ve maybe even been a city councilman. Maybe hizzoner the mayor. Who knows?”
The frown on Johnny’s face had been replaced by an expression of knowing amusement; Barry was, if nothing else, the quintessential unreliable narrator. At the same time, he felt genuine sympathy for Barry, since Johnny had grown up mostly alone and had essentially been abandoned by no less than two fathers. “Hell, maybe you could’ve been President,” he added mockingly.
“Hell, yeah!” Barry said, stopping a moment to belch before continuing. “Yeah, I could’ve been President. I could’ve been somebody, instead’a… instead’a becoming another lousy slob.” He slammed his fist on the bar. “Hey! Hey, Carmine. You trying to dry me out or something? Can I get another pitcher of Bud?”
Carmine the barkeep — a tall, bald Italian with a mustache — said, “This is last call.”
“Fine, fine. Just keep it coming.” Barry turned to the young man. “Hey, uh… Johnny, you want another pint? It’s on me.”
“It’s OK. I’m good.”
“Another Guinness for the kid,” Barry said. “Put it on my tab.”
“I already told you, Barry,” said Carmine. “You don’t get a tab here. You pay at the end of the night like everyone else.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Johnny said. “I’ll have another pint, but I can pay for my own beer.”
“I insist,” said Barry. “Now as I was sayin’, I grew up without a dad. It was hard, too. My mom had a lot of what she called gentleman callers over all the time, so I ended up spending much o’ my childhood at my grandma’s. We were poor, so I never really had much growing up. I hated that. Pretty soon, I took to takin’ things for myself. I saw a bottle of Coke in the store that I wanted, I took it. I saw a bike in someone’s yard, I took it. I saw a purse full’a cash, I took it. Wasn’t long before I got a reputation around the neighborhood as a tough guy. It suited me fine. I never got caught, neither, until I was sixteen. Then they sent me to juvie.
“Now that wasn’t as bad as it sounds. I made a lotta friends there. Plus, I didn’t have to see all the @$$holes who were always dropping in at my mom’s place. She didn’t seem too broken up about me being sent to juvie, neither. All in all, it was a pretty good move. I learned more about being a criminal in juvie than I had on the streets. Plus, it was in juvie that I really started getting into wrestling. I’d seen Verne Gagne, Bobo Brazil, Buddy Rogers, an’ a buncha others at the time, of course, but I didn’t really get into the sport until I had a chance to try it out for myself. I dunno what it was, but it was while wrestling that I really felt like myself, ya know? Something about slamming and pinning another guy on the mat made me feel like a big man. I got really good at it, too. Did that regularly for a few years until I ended up cripplin’ a guy while trying a few wrestling moves I’d seen on TV. $#!%. I didn’t know then that a lot of those TV wrestlers just %@&$in’ choreographed everything, an’ that they never really got hurt much ’cause the moves were faked. How the hell was I supposed to know that a pile-driver move would end up crackin’ a kid’s spine, paralyzin’ him from the neck down?”
Barry shook his head over and over as if doing so could somehow erase what had happened. He said nothing for a few moments, simply holding on to his beer with his eyes closed. Johnny kept sipping his beer and waited for the story to continue.
“%@&$,” Barry finally said. “Ya know, before that happened, I’d had plans. I was real good at wrestling. Good enough to make it as a pro. I thought I’d join the professional wrestling circuit as soon as I got outta juvie. Even had a name for myself. Can ya guess what it was? Yep. The Purple Pile-Driver. Told everyone I knew about that. Irony is a bitch, huh? After that kid was crippled, it was all over. Nobody’d let me wrestle legally anymore.
“Well, I finally got outta juvie. Had to make something outta myself now that my dreams of wrestling were done and finished with. Wasn’t easy, though. Still, I kept outta trouble for a while. Worked construction, mostly. There were always a lotta construction jobs to be had in Metropolis in those days. I guess there must be a lot of them these days now, too, what with all the rebuilding after that kryptonite rock hit the city.” He chuckled. “%@&$in’ blue long-john-wearin’ pansy. Serves ‘im right.”
“You really don’t like Superman much, I’m guessing,” Johnny said. Barry just made a noise that sounded like growling. “So tell me, Barry, how did a failed wanna-be wrestler get to fight Superman? Unless you gained some kind of super-power or something, I can’t see it being any more than a one-sided battle, and a quick one at that.”
“Hold your horses. I was just getting to that,” Barry said grouchily. He took another swig of his Budweiser and turned back to Johnny as if remembering something, pointing his finger at him to make his point. “And don’t believe the press: Superman’s a real @$$hole. No better than any of those gentleman callers at my mom’s place. That Super-dirtbag called me a piece of garbage once. D’you believe that? No respect at all.” Barry raised his pitcher in the air, which was now only one-thirds full. “Hey, Carmine. I’m getting low over here. Top up a fella, huh?”
“That was last call, Barry,” the barkeep said in a calm but obviously irritated voice. “We’re closing up soon.”
Barry gave up and set the pitcher down, giving Johnny a look that said, Can you believe this guy?