Joe the Salamander
Fiction by Timothy Gager
The word Salamander is derived from an old Arab/Persian word meaning “lives in fire,” stemming from an old belief, false of course, that the salamander could walk through fire and remain unharmed.
He knew it was a musty old suit he wore from head to toe like a piece of armor — dark green with golden spots down the sides, a way to protect him from the world. He knew right away that no one would stop to talk to him, and even if they did, the ridiculous costume would basically eliminate conflict with another human being. He also knew he had high levels of fear that caused sweats and shaking. He never wanted to talk.
So, long before the suit, he learned a simple defense mechanism. He would “yes” them to death. It was yes and only yes; negative responses might lead to the unbearable human interactions he feared, and it was this fear that caused him to cover up from the world. This, in turn, maintained his debilitating sickness.
When Joe was a boy, his “yessing” prevented him from doing what he wanted to do. This caused him huge amounts of additional stress. All he wanted to do was sit in his room, listen to the radio, and read books about reptiles and nature. Even simple requests as setting the table for dinner caused him a great deal of anxiety. When young Joe felt this way, he tied a towel around his neck, pretended it was a cape, and became a Superhero. He flew around the house, chased away evil in the world, and ignored any real demands that were given or that might be placed on him. He flew faster and faster, until things started to break at home. While out in the community, it got so bad that Joe wore his cape under his clothing, even at school. He kept his cape on, comforted by the sense of protection the Superhero was giving him. If he was hot or if it itched, he focused inwardly. This way, he was able to overcome his severe anthropophobic reaction, his now generalized fear of nearly all people or situations.
As a teenager, with the help of only his own intervention, Joe overcame his fear barely enough to graduate high school. But when he went off to Arizona State University, everything broke again. He failed every class his first semester. During that time, he had neither friends nor any other meaningful relationships. His roommate worried he might jump off the roof of his dorm because each night, Joe hyperventilated himself to sleep. Back home, his parents finally realized that Joe’s strange behaviors weren’t just him being shy and quirky; they knew they needed to do something. Joe moved back home. A month later, Joe’s parents made an appointment with their family doctor of fifty years, who was able to create a diagnosis without Joe leaving the house. The doctor filled out a twelve-page form, and Joe collected a disability check every month.
Three years later, Joe’s parents needed to see the same doctor for a medical-need diagnosis for themselves. Joe couldn’t be counted on to assist them, as he was barely able to assist himself, so plans were made for his parents to move to a safer apartment. With his parents gone and on his own, Joe had to face life completely alone for the first time ever. Joe battled his fears. He hated that all the minor things people took for granted, such as going to the bank or grocery store, were all-day ordeals for Joe to worry about, as he percolated in all the components of his flawed mind.
He reasoned that, to decrease interactions, he would shop at a 24-hour Albertsons in the middle of the night, but even then he was anxious. Although it was less crowded, Joe feared the late-night clientele who seemed shady and represented potential danger. What if they were drunk or strung out on something? One evening, he was asked to leave the store when he began to breathe heavily in the cereal aisle. He was filled with failure. On his way home, he walked down Main Street, past an old building with a large glass window. He found himself staring at a full-sized adult Superman costume that hung on display in Barney’s Costume Shop. The hours were 10 a.m.–3 p.m. How would he manage to get it? His first plan was to break the glass, but he immediately thought of a probable arrest. He broke into a run instead and tried not to think about it quite yet. It was two weeks of intense planning before he was finally able to leave the house again.
The streets of Phoenix were hot, uncomfortable when walking, but at least Joe felt he would soon be comfortable within a new skin. He decided that he would scribble a note to the owner, whom he presumed was named Barney. This way, he would not have to talk to him, and everything would be quick. No talking involved.
Dear Barney, the note said. I want to purchase the Superman costume I saw in your window. I have a debit card.
There was a problem. The costume he wanted was no longer in the window. It was replaced by a display with five salamander costumes. He began to shake but dug his heels into the ground. Maybe it was in the back, he thought. He exhaled hard and walked in. Behind the counter was an elderly man with a bald, liver-spotted head.
“May I help you?” the man asked.
Joe forced the note at him then shrank away.
“Name’s not Barney. It’s Hal.”
Joe began breathing more heavily.
“And I don’t have that suit anymore. We replaced it with these salamanders.”
Joe saw a room full of them.
“Barney’s is the official costume supplier for the Salamander Festival each year. It’s happening in four days.”
Joe looked at his feet and counted, “One one-thousand, two one-thousand, five one-thousand, one million one-thousand.” Counting was always a desperate measure. It never worked.
“Ya want one of those salamanders instead?”
“Yes,” Joe responded.
“Okay. Want a carry bag?”
Hal zipped the suit in as Joe wrote down his information, and the transaction was over. Joe quickly turned, but instead of heading out, he bolted to the dressing room.
“You okay?” the man called after him.
“Yes,” Joe responded.
At home, during the next few days, Joe wore the suit all the time. It was temporary until Superman was back in stock. After a few days, it felt very comfortable, but it was a little hot, and the large head bobbled around. Three times, he tripped over the coffee table.
Superhero Salamander, Joe thought, trying to strengthen the character mentally. There are going to be many of these guys running around town the next two days, but I’m the one and only Super Sally. Joe smiled underneath the smelly, heavy shell. He opened the door and left his house, in the middle of a hot sunny morning, and for the first time in a long time, he was without a care.
Joe walked through Phoenix, back to Albertsons Market. Being a salamander wasn’t all that bad, besides the sweating. No one was bothering him. It was close to a perfect setup. He picked Albertsons so he could face, and possibly overcome, the setting of his last major breakdown. When he arrived, a few people pointed, while others greeted him enthusiastically. Oh no, Joe thought, but everyone was very excited.
“Going to the festival?” they asked.
“Yes, yes,” he replied, feeling slightly protected in his new disguise. Phew, yes, yes … no one was asking him to do anything. I should stock up on food and supplies, he thought.
He was relaxed enough that he wanted to buy something from every department, but his grandiose ideas pertaining to his new identity (Salamanders are vegetarians.) kept him in produce. Joe purchased a cart full of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and corn, as well as some other green leafy vegetables. His cart was piled up, and some spinach fell onto the floor. People slapped his back and told him to have fun at the festival. He pushed his cart down West Thomas Road, but came to a direct halt. He heard someone shout at him.
Joe felt his hair stand on end, the ones on his back pricked against his salamander suit. He assumed at first that it was the manager and that he was being stopped for removing the shopping cart from Albertsons’ lot.
“You!” the man shouted.
“Yes,” Joe said.
“Come here; we’ve been waiting for you.”
Joe found himself facing a smiling man who wore a white shirt with a tie and a name tag that read: BOB, MANAGER, SOUPER SALAD. Bob shook Joe’s furry hand.
“We’ve been waiting for you. Here, grab this sign!” It read: SOUPER SALAD. YOU CAN BE FRESH HERE. Bob was very enthusiastic; in fact, he was downright super himself. “Here. Go to the corner and start waving and flagging down traffic. Remember, The Salamander Festival is one of our busiest promotions here at Souper Salad. People want to feel a part of it.”
Joe felt like he was going to pass out.
“Thanks for the stock,” Bob added, and picked out the carrots. “No wonder you’re late. I’d been waiting for a truck shipment. Wasn’t expecting these from the mascot, but this is one hell of a company to work for. You never know what to expect. You know what to do, right?”
“Yes,” Joe said. He stood frozen in front of Bob.
“Well, show me,” Bob said. “You know … do your act.” Bob grew impatient. “Okay, fine. Move to the corner.”
Joe stood in one spot.
“The corner! Move!” Bob shouted.
Sweat was running down Joe’s forehead, and it stung his eyes.
Bob pulled Joe by his green arms. “Flag ’em down, c’mon,” Bob said.
Joe said, “Yes,” but when he attempted to jump, a spastic little leap came from his legs, barely propelling him off the ground. Joe’s body was drenched with sweat. He smelled very un-fresh.
“Flag ’em down! Flag ’em!” Bob yelled.
Joe knew he had to do something, so he picked up the pace, manically jumping at a rapid rate. His furry head moved up and down, jiggling against the top of his own head. He never successfully waved anyone into the lot, and he looked like he was doing uncoordinated jumping jacks. The Souper Salad sign he held smashed against the top of the salamander head, and the eyeholes became more and more off-centered. Joe was reminiscent of a hyper bobblehead doll that gave the illusion his head might rocket into space. What topped that was, with all this movement, he barely heard Bob, who shouted for him to do more and more of something that he couldn’t quite understand, nor did he want to. So, he jumped some more. He jumped in a way that would block Bob’s murky directives completely. He jumped until he felt tired and dizzy. The earth spun inside a salamander as Joe staggered toward the edge of the curb, clipped the edge of it with his bulky feet, and fell head first into West Thomas Street.
Perhaps it was the curiosity factor, or the first car that swerved to avoid his prone body, but the reality of it was that Joe’s lack of “social grace” had caused a three-car accident. One of the drivers, also wearing a salamander suit, because he was the real Souper Salad employee, sustained a head injury. His seat belt couldn’t fit over the girth of his suited belly, and he rolled out of the car when its door flew open on impact. He probably would have died if not for the cushioning of his costume.
Joe was brought in by the Phoenix Police in a state of shock and catatonia. There was no evidence of any intentional malice, but because of his current state, Joe ended up with a complex medical work-up followed by a psychological assessment that found him incompetent and strangely a danger to himself. The psychologist ordered to keep Joe under care, so he was moved to a very quiet setting with other patients with social issues who may or may not have caused traffic accidents. It was a tranquil place, so no one bothered him. In fact, there were no demands on him at all. Joe enjoyed his new freedom. He had plenty of choices he could handle. Some days, the professionals allowed him to wear his homemade cape around his neck, but on others, Joe wore his salamander outfit. He thought it best to avoid any potential conflicts.
Timothy Gager is the author of twelve books of short fiction and poetry. His latest novel, Grand Slams: A Coming of Eggs Story (Big Table Publishing), was released in 2016. Coming in 2017 will be his first book of poetry since 2014, titled Chief Jay Strongbow Is Real.
This story was originally published on Go Read Your Lunch on 6/27/13.