Gabriel Moseley, “A Man Stands Tall” (The Masters Review Anthology, Volume VI)
This story is another highlight from The Masters Review Anthology, Volume VI (2017). It’s available online, so you may want to take a look before reading all of the plot spoilers that lie ahead.
The story begins with a contradiction: a family is leading a rugged, nearly colonial life in Montana, while being constantly recorded by cameramen who shadow them wherever they go. This life, we soon learn, is staged for a reality show in which three ordinary families are subjected to the living conditions of “genuine Montana pioneers” (p. 2) for six months.
Tom signed up for the show because he wanted to toughen up his son, Ajay. Helen, Tom’s wife and Ajay’s mother, doesn’t seem to be as committed to the show as Tom. Ajay is becoming hardier, it seems to Tom, and has befriended the Dukes, a group of boys that indulges in rough games and seems to Tom to be a good match for Ajay.
The story is set in motion when Ajay walks in with a broken pinky finger. Later, off-camera, Ajay admits to Tom that one of the Duke boys broke his pinky. Right then, “Tom felt that this was one of those moments where someone’s life could fork. He could either teach his son how to be scared for the rest of his life, how to be a coward, or he could finally teach his son how a man stands tall” (p. 9). He chooses the latter: he prepares a sock mace for Ajay and tells him to use it only if the Duke boys try to hurt him again.
Everything seems fixed. But, one day, Ajay doesn’t come home. Helen and Tom become very concerned. Tom can’t admit to Helen that the Dukes had, in fact, broken Ajay’s finger intentionally. He can’t admit that he had armed his son with a sock mace. Looking for answers, he goes to the Dukes’ house. The Dukes are part of the program, so the exchange is recorded—and eerie. One of the Dukes, Brandon, had a purple bruise over his eye. He is playing with a sock puppet. They are all very kind to Tom and say they don’t know where Ajay went.
Tom returns home, and escapes from the cameras to watch over the Dukes’ house. When Brandon goes to the outhouse, Tom snatches him from outside, overpowers him, and hurts him enough to force him to say where Ajay is. We are reminded along the way of the fork in the road Tom had faced when he advised Ajay to fight off the bullies (“They followed the river downstream until it forked. They kept to the near side, as the river cut through the valley, passing close alongside the foothills of the mountains. Finally the path broke away from the river and headed upward, deeper into the forest” [p. 16]).
Brandon leads Tom to a horrific clearing in which Ajay “lay stretched out like a starfish,” his wrists and ankles tied to four trees around him; “The ropes had been tied so taut, his limbs so fully extended, that his back barely touched the ground” (p. 16). Tom releases Ajay. He knows that he will be judged harshly, even if he acted out of “the most ancient, the most fierce form of love” (p. 17). He realizes that Ajay will be “forever weak, afraid, and broken” (p. 17).
A good story, “A Man Stands Tall” reminds us how often we can become blind to people by becoming enamored with ideas.