The Blue-Skinned Man
The Blue-Skinned Man is like Santa Claus, the kids on the playground tell you. He’s like the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy. Nobody believes in him anymore. That stuff is for kids. Whispers circulate around the playground: that one still believes in the Blue-Skinned Man! Your face burns hot with shame.
Why didn’t anyone ever tell you? Why did your parents let you go on believing a lie? Why did they tell you about the Blue-Skinned Man in the first place? Why do parents do these things to their children? Do children exist for nothing more than their parents’ sick amusement?
The kids on the playground laugh and say: I found out in first grade. I figured it out in kindergarten! Ha ha, you’re in fifth grade and you still believe in the Blue-Skinned Man? Shut up, you say. That is your only defense. You hate yourself and your parents and the whole hierarchy of lies that constitutes your relationship.
Yours is the last bus stop on the route. The driver lets you out at the bottom of the hill and you walk through the creaky gate, past the mailbox shaped like a cow’s head, up the steep stairs to the top of the hill where a grey house sits, three stories tall with an attic on top, and on top of that a rooster-shaped weather vane that spins constantly in the wind and looks down on the bare yard with its sickly yellow grass pushing up through the ground.
You go inside and get a glass of milk from the fridge. Your father, the Mad Scientist, is working in his lab now, but when he comes up for dinner, he’ll have some explaining to do. Until then, you pester your mother about the Blue-Skinned Man as she watches her soaps in the living room.
Your mother is Susie Homemaker now, but in the past she has been Susie Telemarketer, Steelworker, Masseuse, Receptionist, Orange Packer, Lounge Singer, Deck Swabber, Tree Planter, Grave Digger, and Nurse. Now she keeps house and watches soaps and cooks dinner. You stand in front of the TV.
Why didn’t you tell me about the Blue-Skinned Man?
Move, move, she says.
So you move. You are not evil. Your mother has, after all, sacrificed a lot for you. She carried you for nine months in her belly. But you ask again: Why did you let me think the Blue-Skinned Man was real?
Hang on, she says. On screen, two good-looking men argue about someone named Logan. Based on the conversation, you can’t tell if Logan is a male or a female. The show ends with a close-up of a man’s face, troubled and twitchy beneath a goatee. Your mother turns off the television and stands up. Oh, that Logan, she says, and walks to the kitchen. Would you like a glass of milk, honey? she asks.
Why didn’t you tell me? you say.
Don’t believe everything you hear at school, she says without turning around. Her head is in the oven. Your father and I never lied to you.
You can’t argue with your poor mother like this, when she won’t even face you. Save it for dinner.
The Blue-Skinned Man will come and help you. That’s what you’ve always been told. When you’re in a true time of need, and only then, the Blue Man will appear to help. Only to those who believe in him. Only at night, never during the day. He is a nighttime helper. If a bus runs into you at noon on a Saturday, and you feel your guts separating from your body, the Blue-Skinned Man will not help, cannot help, because he can’t tolerate the sunlight. There are rules. What if it’s daytime but overcast? Rainy? Pre-dawn? Twilight? Solstice? No one knows the answers to these questions, maybe not even the Blue-Skinned Man himself.
The point is, in your true time of need, if you truly believe, he will come to your aid. This is what you’ve been told.
Your father comes up from his lab for dinner. Mashed potatoes, meatloaf. The Mad Scientist is a tall man with a shiny bald head and tufts of wild silver hair shooting up over each ear. His glasses make his eyes appear freakishly large. He wears a bow tie and, while in the lab, a white coat. He never wears the white coat to dinner.
You get right down to it: Why did you never tell me about the Blue-Skinned Man?
You will first tell me about your day at school.
My day of school was ruined when everyone made fun of me about the Blue-Skinned Man.
Your lessons. What did you do in science today?
Sigh. We learned about pistils and stamens and spores. Plant reproduction, simple stuff.
What! You and I went over that before you started kindergarten.
I know, father.
When do they plan on getting to Darwinian evolution? Quantum physics? String theory? Bah. That damned school.
Your father digs into his potatoes. He has successfully evaded the question. Your mother remains silent, though her stark beauty will always be a presence. On another day you too might have eaten quietly, but those playground taunts ring in your ears. Why, you say, did you lie to me about the goddamn Blue-Skinned Man?
You’ll watch your mouth! your father says, though his eyes flash with pride. He sips his Kool-Aid. Now, he says, what did you hear today?
No one believes in him anymore. They all said he’s like Santa Claus. The whole thing’s a sham.
And you believe these friends rather than your own parents?
They’re not my friends. I hate them. I hate you, too.
That’s quite selfish, the old man says.
Well, I hate myself.
You don’t, your mother says. Of all the things you said, this alone has wounded her. Her eyes are large and dark. You look down at your plate. For the second time that day you burn with shame.
Your father takes a bite of meatloaf. Believe what you want about the Blue-Skinned Man, he says through a full mouth. All I can tell you, son, is that I, in my true time of need, over twenty years ago, was rescued by the Blue-Skinned Man. That’s how I met your mother. He winks at her, and she smiles slyly.
Your father has told you this before. It is not a new story. Enough with the lies! you shout.
They are not lies! your father shouts back. I’ve had my turn, the Blue-Skinned Man already saved me, and the next time I am in a true moment of need I will die, because the Blue Man only visits once, everybody gets a turn, he doesn’t have time for more than that, there are lots of people in the world! So stop complaining and wait until your true time of need!
Jesus, you say.
Jesus is right! Now shut up and eat your dinner!
Jeffrey, your mother says. (Your father’s name.)
A long pause.
I’m sorry, your father says, softly. Son, please eat your dinner and don’t worry about those imbeciles at that damned school. I would never lie to you.
Nor I, says your mother.
You don’t know what to make of all this. You eat your meat loaf, but it doesn’t taste like anything. After that the family watches a TV show about a bear and a shark who become best friends. They were raised together as cub and pup. The bear goes swimming with the shark. If any underwater cameramen approach the bear, the shark attacks them. The TV crew lost two people in this way.
Career day. Parents visit the classroom and talk about their jobs. Your parents don’t come. Mom doesn’t feel like explaining her varied career, and several parents objected to the Mad Scientist appearing. The father of Rory Jacobs was especially adamant. Though Rory’s father sells insurance, Rory has often alluded to himself as a part-time Wolfman, and you suspect your own father is involved in this somehow. Had a hand in creating it, perhaps. You’re not allowed down in the lab.
All day you listen to shopkeepers and firefighters and chefs and bounty hunters until, just as you start to nod off, the Mad Scientist creeps in the side door. You slide down in your seat, cover your face with your hand. Your father stands politely along the wall in his corduroy coat and when his turn comes, he steps to the front of the class as though he’d been waiting in line the whole time. Everyone recognizes him, and even though Bobby Bogart’s dad is a Swamp Creature and Mark Star’s is a hunchbacked bell-ringer, your father is hated most by the town because—well, you’re not sure why, but a palpable dread comes over the room as he takes the podium.
Darwinian evolution, he says, teaches us that all creatures have a niche. Each parent you’ve heard from today, from navy admiral to ostrich rancher, represents a different niche in society. I represent mine. The role of Chemical and Biological Experimenter—or Mad Scientist, if you will—is essential to the growth of a healthy society. Never underestimate the amount of good that can come from mutation.
So what exactly do you do all day? someone asks.
Your father’s eyes are huge beneath his glasses. He adjusts his bow tie. He points to you.
My son, he says, sometimes asks me, Dad, what goes on down in your lab?
(This is a lie. You never ask.)
I tell him, son, you can only know if you go into the family business. So that’s the same answer I give you. In order to know what a scientist does, you must be a scientist.
Your father laughs once, shrilly, like a bark. No one else asks a question. He steps down, and you breathe a sigh of relief. It could have been worse. Much worse. But then he stops and, by way of concluding, says: And don’t forget to study your science books. We need new scientists for the future, if we are to find a scientific explanation for the Blue-Skinned Man.
You cover your face with both hands. Is your father oblivious, or was this intentional?
One day, Rory Jacobs approaches you in a fury. Red puncture wounds cover the left side of his face. You see him in the halls every day but haven’t spoken to him in years. You’re sitting in front of a Bunsen burner when he stomps up, trembling, fists clenched at his sides.
Your dad’s an asshole, he says.
Don’t blame me for your problems, you say.
I don’t blame you. I blame your dad. And I’m going to kill him.
No you’re not.
The Mad Scientist is gonna have an accident, Rory says. Then he walks away.
You feel sick the rest of the day, and spend gym class sitting on the bleachers with your head between your knees while everyone else plays Eye Ball. Coach yells at you and you ignore him. You want to visit the school nurse, tell her you’re sick, but what good would it do? There’s no one to come pick you up. Neither of your parents has an automobile. (The Mad Scientist, when he does leave home, travels by bicycle.)
So you just sit through school, enduring, waiting for the bus to take you home. Images of your mother alone flash through your mind. Watching her soaps. Helpless. Someone creeping up behind her. Your head pounds. And when the day finally ends, when the bus finally arrives, the bumpy ride is almost unbearable. Yours is the last stop, up and down grey hills, and you sit at the back, hunched down in the seat with your feet sticking out so the driver doesn’t forget you. A loud sound like a gunshot explodes underneath the vehicle and you leap up with a shout.
The driver laughs and then comes to a stop in the ditch. Flat tire. You sit back, panting. You were sure it was Rory Jacobs’s bomb.
The driver examines the busted tire and then punches numbers into his cell phone. Finally he comes back in, sits behind the wheel, and opens a magazine. He says it will be an hour before anybody can bring a spare.
I’ll walk, you say. You can’t sit on that bus any longer. The driver doesn’t object. You jump out and start jogging down the hill, all the way to the bottom, and then up the next one. There are only a few more. You’ll be there in no time. Then you can warn your parents about Rory’s threat—which, for some reason, felt serious—and your mother can laugh and the Mad Scientist can assure you that neither Rory nor his father poses any threat to him whatsoever.
When you arrive at your gate, it’s open. The metal has been broken and a lone rusty hinge creaks and groans as the gate moves back and forth in the wind. You swallow a lump of dread. The mailbox shaped like a cow’s head is torn open at the mouth and bits of the day’s mail lie scattered around the base of the stone steps. You take them two at a time. On top of your narrow house, the weather vane spins. You burst through the door and hear someone say, “Now Logan, you hear this!”
The TV. You enter the living room to find your mother, but on the couch is a fountain of blood spurting from her body. The room is silent except for the television. “Logan, I love her. You think you can just waltz in here and everything will be like it used to be? What kind of sense does that make? What kind of world do you live in, Logan? Logan, I know you had something special with her. I don’t take that away from you. But when you joined the CIA, you made your decision. When you went to Hawaii with Francis, you made your decision. I’ve never had anything in life and now I have her. It’s my turn, Logan. Logan, it’s my turn.”
You know where you have to go. You flick the light on and head downstairs, to your father’s lab.
The lab is something like you expected: bubbling flasks and wiry machines that look like torture devices set up around the room. The Mad Scientist hangs sideways from one of these, a sort of wheel with various hooks and blades on it. His neck is snapped at an odd angle. Around you, metal tables shine under bright lights. It’s more sterile than you’d expected. You barely register all this information before someone tackles you from behind, someone who must be Rory Jacobs, someone who punches your back and then lashes you with what feels like an electric whip. You yelp and writhe. Everything goes black.
You awake alone and in the dark. Only the dim light from the stairway shows the outlines of machines. Different objects tick and hiss on the walls. Rory Jacobs—or whoever he hired—is long gone. You have no idea what time it is. Faint voices drift from upstairs. Applause, laughter. The TV. On the couch your mother is dead and down here the Mad Scientist lies contorted on one of his own contraptions.
Your wrists and ankles are held fast, and when you try to bend, fire rips across your back, effects of the electric whip. You had no idea your father made such devices down here. This explains why the town hates him—what has he done with these things? Has he used them on people? On Rory Jacobs’s father, for instance? You shudder.
Whenever you, as a child, asked the old man how he expected to die, he always answered immediately, “At the hands of the townspeople. The Pitchfork Crew. They’ll torch me. If you go into the family business, son, that’s a factor you’ll have to consider. Very few Mad Scientists live to retirement age. But the potential benefits outweigh the risks.”
Now you are strapped to an upright gurney. No pendulum swings toward you, no cauldron of lava beneath, no granite slabs inching closer and closer. Just a tube, a clear plastic tube, running from the back of the gurney, across the room. You follow it with your eyes. It runs twenty feet and then up a counter, into a machine with more tubes and a green liquid simmering at its bottom. Emerging from the machine is a line of pink powder. You follow this too. It stretches across the room to the doorway, where, in the light of the stairs, it becomes a trail of grey ashes: a slow spark moves down the line.
You struggle to take all this in. Rory Jacobs or his thug has left you in a trap. This is probably what they did to your father. (Likely they pitied your mother and allowed her a quick death on the couch.) And now you, as the Mad Scientist’s only progeny, must suffer just as he did. When that spark reaches the machine, something will happen. You don’t know what. The green liquid will come to life and shoot through the tube toward you. Maybe Rory wants to turn you into a Wolfman like his father. Maybe some other hideous mutation. Maybe a slow death of poison gas. Maybe.
The wait is excruciating. The spark burns through the pink powder, moves slowly across the room toward its gruesome destination. You try to blow on it, but it’s too far away, and any movement enflames your tender back. Nothing to do but wait. No one knows you are here. You will die.
The line of powder shrinks—twenty feet, then ten feet, then only one. The inches sizzle away. Sweat drenches your body. Your heart pounds. When the spark is only an inch away from the machine, less than an inch, you close your eyes.
A crash upstairs snaps them open. Then a shout, and footsteps clattering. A bulky silhouette fills the lighted doorway. Help, you say. Your voice comes out a croak. Help me.
Whoa, the silhouette says—a man’s voice. Oh my god, he says.
Help, you say again, and he starts towards you. No, you say. The spark. Stop the spark.
What? the man says. He reaches you, unfastens the straps, and you fall to the floor. Across the room the spark still has not reached its target. You grope and crawl across the linoleum and extinguish it with your hand. The man, your rescuer, stands over you. He has blue skin. Blue, greasy skin. He wears overalls. He has a tool belt. He’s not at all what you pictured.
You came, you whisper. You’re real. My true time of need.
Good god, I’ve got to call the police. You stay right here.
Yes, you say. Thank you. You roll over and close your eyes. The room spins around you. Somewhere in the distance, the Blue-Skinned Man speaks into a phone. You didn’t know the Blue-Skinned Man used phones! Help, he says. I’ve got two dead bodies here and a kid who looks kinda fucked up.
That’s not true, you think. You feel great, except for your back.
Me? the Blue-Skinned Man says. No, I just stumbled in. I had to help a bus driver with a flat tire, and I got all greasy. I’m covered in filth. Anyway some kid left his notebook on the bus, and it had his address written in it, so I stopped by to return it. And found this mess. It’s awful, just awful. The kid is lying here on the floor. He seems okay but just really traumatized or something.
A long pause. Then the Blue-Skinned Man says, Yeah, sure, I’ll wait around for the cops. Then he hangs up.
He turns to you. I’m leaving, he says. Don’t you go anywhere. The police are coming to take care of you.
Okay, you say, and you feel sleepy, like you’re a baby again and it’s bedtime. Thank you Blue-Skinned Man, you say. Thank you!
Right, the Blue-Skinned Man says, and stomps up the stairs, leaving the house silent again, except for the soft voices of the television. You smile there on the cold floor. Only a few more grains of pink powder, and you might have been zapped into a monster. Instead you are a regular boy still, and you stretch out and revel in this fact, as all the lab’s ticks and tocks and hisses and bells rustle around you, and superimposed on them, very faintly, the sound of a woman’s voice.
“The weekend’s top-grossing movies were number five, Murmurs of the Heart, number four, Glory and Viscera, number three, Morris and Gretchen’s Untimely House Guest, number two, Tumescence, and number one with a bullet, Final Payback 3: The Final Finality. Everyone expected this picture to be a blockbuster and it delivered on opening weekend. It’s a tour-de-force, seat-of-your-pants, non-stop thrill ride. Riveting. A must-see. The Oscar season begins now.”
N. T. Brown lives in Orlando, FL, with a rotating cast of animals.