E. M. Eastick

The gate was pathetic really, a ponderous old thing scavenged from a farm, the barbed wire bent and rusty and barely able to support the sign. As if we needed a sign. We all knew what lay beyond. Even so, I scrutinized the loopy letters that spelled, ‘Mensland.’ A dozen dot points were handwritten beneath: Those condemned to death, enter here; Those choosing to live outside our society, enter here; Those seeking redemption, enter here.

And so it went, a woman’s hand and a woman’s mind offering punishment, liberty, an alternative to peace and harmonious living. The last dot point screamed in capitals: MEN ONLY.

“Sightseeing?” A young officer, dark and pretty if not for crooked teeth and a hairy mole on her chin, smiled insipidly. I couldn’t see a Taser, but I knew she had one.

“I was thinking about taking a look. I’m allowed back, aren’t I?”

The officer cocked her head and a strand of frizzy black hair slipped out from under her cap. I warmed at seeing a hint of long hair, the promise of femininity beneath the shell of authority. “Sure, anytime you want, honey. Just sign the book.” She nodded to a spiral-bound notepad tethered to the gatepost with baling twine. “Peace of mind for your womanfolk, you understand?”

Tentatively, I opened the book, the dog-eared pages and smudges promising tales of forgotten men. Every page was filled with identical and neatly-drawn columns filled with a scrabble of names and numbers. I settled on a page near the back, where the entries stopped half way down, and read the headings: Person Entering Mensland; Date; Time; Reason for Entry. The right-hand column formed a white strip down the page. It was empty. The heading read: Date and Time Leaving Mensland. Flicking back through the pages, I noticed every one featured a blank last column.

“Why’s nobody filled in this bit?” I asked, poking the white strip.

” ‘Cause nobody has.”

I looked at the book, and I looked at her. “I can see that. But why?”

She rolled her eyes and spoke slowly. “Nobody has ever left Mensland, sugar.” She shrugged her shoulders, as clueless as I was.

“You mean, ever?”

“Not since the Flash.” She smiled, her crooked teeth gleaming like a threat. Lines formed around her eyes, and I wondered if maybe she wasn’t as young as I thought she was. “Why don’t you be the first, sugar?”

The land beyond the gate looked bare and barren, a desert edging the oasis of the city. “Is it because it’s impossible to live out there?”

The officer laughed heartedly. “What do I look like, an anthropologist? How the hell would I know?”

I doubted ‘anthropologist’ was the right word, but I got her point. “Surely the Women’s Council must know. It sends criminals out there.”

“Is that a question?” She rolled her eyes again and crept a hand up the back of her jacket.

I guessed that’s where she kept the Taser, and I wondered if she were thinking about using it on me. In the next second, her hand appeared from behind her and seemed to relax by her side, so I figured not. Maybe the weapon was proving uncomfortable, or maybe she needed reassurance that I wasn’t a threat.

“You want to go home and think about it for a bit, sugar?”

“I was curious, that’s all.”

“Sure, why wouldn’t you be? But look, you seem like a good guy.” She ran her eyes up and down my body, pausing a bit too long to consider my brogues as if footwear alone defined a man. “Why would you want to head on out to Mensland when you can live right here, all snug and safe in Graceland?”

Because it’s run by women, I wanted to scream.

The officer rambled in the background of my silent protests. “. . . no wars . . . no guns . . . no killing . . .” I’d heard it all before, from President Li, from Mayor Valdez, from my wife.

“Women can be violent, too,” I blurted.

“Nature prevails in a peaceful world.”
Yes, I knew the catch cry of the Women’s Council. It wrestled with my conscience on a daily basis. “Some women are naturally violent,” I insisted.

“Like who?” She rested her hands on her hips in a familiar challenge.

I knew she wouldn’t accept names from before the Flash; that was in a man’s world, she would argue. Of course women were driven to violence . . . because of men. I couldn’t bear to enter into the argument I’d had many times before, so I took a deep breath and turned away, just like my mother told me to do.

“You can get counselling, sugar. Mensland should be a last resort for a guy like you.”

A guy like me? What did she mean by that? “Okay, thanks,” I called back over my shoulder. “Have a nice day.”


Olivia placed a bowl of mashed potatoes on the table beside the carved beef and took a seat acro
ss from me. My daughter sat sulkily beside me, a book open on her lap.

“Why don’t you put that away while we have dinner?”

My request was met with silence, just like it was the night before, and the night before that. “Izzy, did you hear what I said?”

“Don’t yell at me, Dad.”

I sighed. “You know I’m not yelling at you, Izzy. I just want you to put away the book so we can enjoy dinner together.”

“Ms. Hillbrook told us all about the anti-violence laws today.” As if she didn’t know them already. Izzy peered out from under black bangs to gauge my reaction. When I offered none, she added, “You can’t yell at me, you know.”

I sighed again and looked pleadingly at Olivia, but my wife simply shrugged. “Teenagers,” she said, as if that excused our daughter’s insolence.

“What do you think happens in Mensland?” I asked, assuming deliberate cheerfulness.

Olivia stopped serving herself potatoes and looked at me with questioning eyes. Izzy slowly closed her book and looked at me with something resembling admiration; a look I hadn’t seen since she was five years old.

“Did you go there?” said Izzy.

“Of course not,” I replied, perhaps a little too quickly. “I was just wondering, that’s all.”

“The fact that violent criminals are sent there to die says it all, doesn’t it?” said Olivia sternly. “Good riddance to them.”

“Yes, but any guy can enter Mensland if he really wants to,” I said. “If you haven’t been sentenced, you can come back whenever you like.”
“Just imagine,” said Izzy, her face glowing. “Murderers and rapists and thieving bastards all thrown together to battle it out.”

“Izzy, please,” pleaded Olivia. “We’re trying to have dinner here.”
“Yeah, but can you imagine? There must be blood and guts all over that place.”

“What do you think, Dad?”

I hadn’t seen blood and guts all over the place from the gate, but she had a point. How could all that nastiness exist together without intervention? It simply couldn’t. “Nobody’s ever left Mensland, you know. None of the ones that can, I mean.”

“Well, is it any wonder,” said Olivia. “I mean, really.”

“I’m thinking of going in to take a look.” When I saw the colour drain from Olivia’s face, I knew I’d said the wrong thing.

“Wow, Dad, really?” said Izzy. “How cool would that be?”

“You just said nobody’s ever left Mensland.”

Now that it was out there, I had to follow through. “I could be the first. Maybe I’ll write about it. Start up a magazine or something. We had hundreds of them before the Flash.”

“Awesome!” Izzy cheerfully piled mashed potato onto her plate.

“I can’t believe we’re even talking about this, Peter,” said Olivia. “What about your job?”

“The company’s trying a new work model; they call it ‘happy working.’ The board are practically forcing us to take more leisure time, sort of like workers in the middle ages did.”

Olivia crossed her arms on the table. “And you consider going to Mensland leisure?”

I shrugged. “Why not?”

“Because you have responsibilities, Peter.”

“What responsibilities? You earn most the household income. You take care of Izzy—”

“I can take care of myself, Dad,” said Izzy, her cheek bulging with food.

I appealed to my wife with lifted shoulders. “There you have it. What responsibilities do I have? I’m practically obsolete.”

“You have a responsibility to be a good husband and good father,” said Olivia. “Emotionally.”

I couldn’t help but laugh and couldn’t stop even when I saw my wife’s hurt expression. “I love you, sweetheart. I really do. And Izzy, more than anything, but I need to see what’s out there.”

Olivia stood abruptly and picked up her plate even though she’d barely touched the food she’d served herself. “No, you want to see what’s out there.” Her plate rattled as she dropped it on the kitchen bench. “There are other ways to deal with a midlife crisis, you know.”

The denial formed on my tongue, but there it stayed. Maybe she was right; maybe this was a midlife crisis. “A day. Two at most.”

“Oh, Peter, stop this,” hissed Olivia from the kitchen. Izzy had stopped chewing and watched the exchange intently.

“My name will be in the book. That’s something.” For some reason, that was important to me. I doubted my wife knew anything about the book at the Mensland gate, and she didn’t ask. Instead, she hurried down the hallway and disappeared into the master bedroom.


The same officer as the day before guarded the entry to Mensland. She picked her fingernails, efficiently short and glossy, when I approached the gate and took hold of the book.

“So you’re back.” Her voice oozed with apathy.

“You got a pen?” I didn’t want to look at her, but I didn’t want to read those names, either. These were real people, sentenced or driven to live outside society, in a land of . . . what? The harder I tried not to focus on names, the clearer they became, and I laughed.

The officer slipped a pencil into my outstretched hand. “What’s so funny?”

“Does anyone even read this book?” I asked without looking up.

I sensed rather than saw the shrug. “It’s there if anyone wants to read it. You know, wives and mothers and the like, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone do it. Except you.”

“Looks like you’ve got quite a collection of pre-Flash celebrities out there in Mensland.”
Clearly uninterested, the officer returned to her place by the opposite gate post and resumed her fingernail inspection.

The names brought another smile to my face: Micky Mouse, Dracula, Rumpelstilskin. I doubted the officer would have heard of them, anyway. She was probably just a baby when the Flash happened. On the empty line under the last entry, I wrote ‘Mr. Incredible’ and dotted the ‘i’ with more certainty than I felt.

“See you’ve brought supplies.” The officer nodded to the small backpack I wore over one shoulder. She smiled without showing her teeth, thank goodness’, and unfastened the rickety gate. “You sure about this, sugar?”

“I’m only planning on going out for the day,” I said casually, as if heading off to the beach. “Two at the most.”

She shook her head as the gate swung open. “Whatever you say.”

I wanted to ask her for advice, to press her for information about my unknown destiny, but something told me the officer would be no help to me now. I was going, and that was that. Whatever I had to discover, was to be discovered by me alone. The thrill of adventure rippled through me as a shiver.

“So, are you going or what?”

“Sure, I’m going.” I’d have time enough to philosophize in Mensland, I figured, and stepped forward.

“Happy travels,” called the officer as she closed the gate. She turned her back to me and focused her attention on something in front of her, probably her fingernails. My salute to her and what she represented fell flat and unnoticed right there at the gender divide.

I gazed over the expanse and wondered what to do next. On the eastern horizon, blurred by the rising sun, I thought I saw something, or someone, and so I headed in that direction. The landscape barely changed in the hour I spent walking. Dust whipped around my ankles in tiny invisible eddies, and the sun shone brightly and pleasantly without any hint of menace. Only once did I stop to drink from my water bottle, and my light clothes were comfortably free of sweat for my entire trek.

As I neared the fuzzy shape, I could see it was a man sitting on a low stool. I approached with caution should the gent be one of the feared murderers or rapists Izzy had spoken of over dinner, but the lack of trees or buildings or rises in the landscape made it impossible for me to have not been seen already. Drawing closer, I decided on the direct approach. “Hello there,” I called, raising my hand in what I hoped was an unthreatening gesture.

The man hawked and spat on the ground as he watched me.

“Lovely day, isn’t it?” How exactly did the men of Mensland greet each other?

I wasn’t disappointed when the man replied with a solemn, “S’pose so.”

The haze of morning gave way to a clear vision. The man must have been at least eighty. His hair was thin around his ears and his bare skull blotchy with age. His fingers bent awkwardly at the knuckles as he lifted a hand to shoo away a fly.

“Ten bucks,” he said through toothless gums.

“Excuse me?”

“I said ten bucks. It’ll cost you ten bucks.”

I looked around at the empty land. “What will cost me ten bucks?”

“Entry to Mensville. Taxes, you know?”

I looked around again, but the desert appeared to stretch forever. “Mensville?”

“Only town out here: water, food, whatever else you’re looking for. Ten bucks.”

I scratched my head. “I don’t see a town. Where exactly is Mensville?”

The craggy hand pointed to the north. “Not far. Ten bucks.”

The horizon glimmered in the sun, and I spotted a blur, perhaps buildings, on a distant rise.

“And what if I don’t pay you ten bucks? I mean, I could have just walked right by you and you would never have known.”

“I’d have known,” said the old man, hawking again and spitting a glob of slime to the dirt. “You can pay and live, or not pay and die. S’up to you, mister.”

As much as I wanted to explore his logic through discussion, I didn’t much want to stand out in the middle of an unknown desert to do it. “Okay, sure,” I conceded. “What’s ten bucks?” I pulled my wallet from the back pocket of my jeans and slid out a ten dollar note.

The man accepted the fee with a gummy smile. “Head into McNally’s to enjoy your free drink.” He nodded to the settlement in the distance and began to chuckle.

“Will you be okay by yourself out here?” I glanced around at the barrenness. “Should I send someone out to get you?”

The chuckling grew louder and formed the only answer to my questions.

“Um, okay then,” I said, sure that I’d been swindled. “I’ll be seeing you.” As I walked away, the laughter continued until time and space made it inaudible.

The strange old man occupied my thoughts throughout the next hour’s walk to the edge of town. ‘Pay and live, or not pay and die,’ he’d said. Would he have killed me if I hadn’t paid? A chill of adrenalin snaked through my veins. Before I could hypothesize further, the sounds of civilization murmured across the sand, and the outlines of modest buildings formed on either side of a single dirt road. Even from a distance I could see the road hummed with movement. Distinctly masculine figures ambled into and out of the buildings and huddled together in the open to discuss . . . what?

I hurried to the wall of the nearest building. It was made of packed earth and crumbled a little when my backpack brushed against it, but it otherwise appeared sturdy. Two men stood by the open doorway.

“Corn’s doing well, Tom,” said one in a low gruff voice. “So’s tobacco.” As if to prove both points, he pulled a corn-cob pipe from a coat pocket and stuck the corn-stalk mouthpiece between his lips.

“I’ll trade you furs and fish,” said the other man, presumably named Tom. Without another word, the men shook hands and disappeared into the building.

So much for blood and guts. With renewed confidence at having witnessed the civil exchange, I followed the men through the doorway and stopped instantly when a dozen pairs of rugged eyes turned on me. Four belonged to men seated at a rustic table strewn with mugs and playing cards; four belonged to men perched at a low long bar; two belonged to men serving some sort of brew to the men at the bar; and two belonged to the men whom I’d just followed in. They were selecting two roughly-made stools from a heap by the far wall and looked to be joining the men at the bar.

The stockier of the two barmen ushered me forward. “Old Squirrel said you paid your dues,” he said. “Have a drink.” He slopped a dark liquid into a wooden mug and set in on the wood.

I stepped forward and gingerly settled onto a vacant stool. “Um, thanks,” I said raising the mug to my lips. The smell of smoke and oil and damp earth rushed at me from either the mug or the brew—it was impossible to tell which—and I sipped cautiously. The blast of alcohol burnt my tongue, and I coughed.

The gathering of men watched and laughed. “Been a while since you had some of that, eh?” said the bullish barman.

Since before the Flash, I wanted to say, and even then only when my parents allowed it, but I was coughing too hard to offer this insight. Instead, I licked my lips and tried again, this time swallowing hard and savouring the smooth aftertaste. “This is good,” I finally managed to say and meaning it. “Thanks.”

The two men whom I’d seen at the door planted their stools on either side of me. The one with the corn-cob pipe slapped me on the shoulder. “Welcome to Mensville. What’s your name?”

“Um, Peter.”

“I’m Choco, and this here is Tom,” he said nodding to the furs and fish man. “You’re going to like it here, Um-Peter.”

“I am?”

“Oh yeah,” said Tom. He looked like he hadn’t shaved for two weeks and hadn’t washed his hair for ten, but he smelled rich and earthy and grinned like a friendly catfish. “What’s your thing, Um-Peter.”

“No, it’s just Peter,” I said. “My name is Peter.”

Both men chuckled. “Sure, sure. Just Peter. Got it. So what’s your thing?” repeated Tom.
“My ‘thing’?”

I hadn’t noticed Choco light his pipe, but an unpleasant smell I’d never smelled before rose from the corn-cob in a string of blue smoke. The man puffed as he slapped me on the shoulder again. “You need to find a thing, my friend. Something you can do or be that’s useful to Mensland.”

“Oh, I get it.” I cheered internally. “You mean like a job.”

“Sure,” said Choco. “Tom, here, grows crops. I hunt and fish. Lanky here . . .” He nodded to the rotund barman, who had moved further down the bar to serve other customers. “. . . brews beer and runs a still.”

I felt the shocked expression pop onto my face. “Isn’t alcohol illegal on account of its overuse being a leading cause of violence?”

It was my new friend’s turn to look shocked. “What are you, a grandma?”

“There’s nothing much illegal here, Peter,” said Tom. “You do your thing, and you stay alive. As simple as that. And in between doing your thing and staying alive, you do whatever the hell you want.”

I glanced around at the dinghy surrounds. “Like what?”

“Hunt, fish, fight, sleep, drink, fart—whatever you want, I tell you. No nagging women around here. Never has been, never will be.”

“And what about the criminals?”

The question was met with two expressionless faces.

“You know, the guys convicted of murder or rape or beating people up?”

“Well, you’ve already met old Squirrel—he’s our taxman.”

“You mean the old man with no teeth? He’s a violent criminal?”

“He used to be a banker.”

“So how did he get here?”

“His old woman threatened to clean him out. She said, ‘What are you going to do, Squirrel, hit me? You’ll be marched off to Mensland quick smart.’ He reckoned if he was heading this way, he may as well have a good reason to, so he stabbed her in the neck with the gold fountain pen she gave him for his birthday.”

I hissed air between my teeth at the gruesome image.

“So now he collects our taxes. How’d you like your free drink?”

I took a sip of the fiery alcohol and smiled an answer. “What about the other criminals?”

“Most of us aren’t so bad,” said Tom. “We do our thing; we stay out of trouble. If we have a problem, we go see the trio.”

“The trio?”

“George, Ernie and Kitty Kat. They’re mean sons-of-bitches, all right, so it makes sense for them to be the law around here. There’s three of them in case one gets out of control.”

“So what about—” I didn’t want to raise it, but I had to know. “—the rapists.”

Choco raised both hands in a ‘don’t shoot’ gesture. “What a man does in private is his own business, but if a man tries to bugger another man without permission, he’s a dead man. You know what I mean?”

I didn’t exactly, but I was relieved, nevertheless. “Good to know.”

“Leave a man alone, and he’ll leave you alone. Simple rules for simple living, Peter.”

“I feel like I’ve stepped into the Wild West,” I mumbled to no one in particular.

“Yep,” said Choco huffing on his pipe. “The Flash was the best thing that could have happened to a fellow.” He swept an arm around the room. “It doesn’t get much better than this.”

I followed the gesture with my eyes and noticed two of the men who had been playing cards were now aggressively arm wrestling. Snarls and grunts of exertion rose louder the longer they fought.

“Might be a brawl in a minute,” said Tom, his catfish grin spreading wider across his face. “You sticking around?”

“Um . . . I should really get going.”

A crack of wood sounded from the card table. One of the arm wrestlers had broken his stool across the other man’s shoulders. One of the other card players tackled the chair-thrower just in time to save him from the fourth man’s swinging arm.”

“What the hell . . .?” I mumbled, enthralled by the action.

“Join in, Peter.” Choco and Tom hurried into the melee with hoots and howls.

I offered an apologetic glance to Lanky, who overlooked the action with something resembling amusement. “Go on,” he coaxed. “You’ll be a better man because of it.”

As a kid, I’d attended taekwondo lessons for two years at the insistence of my father. He said nothing when the Women’s Council outlawed all martial arts, labeling the form as violent and unnecessary. Nor did he live long enough after the Flash to experience the other changes: the prohibition of alcohol; the abolition of weapons; the formation of Mensland. What would he have made of it all, I wondered?

“What are you waiting for?” urged Lanky, seemingly unconcerned by the escalating damage to the premises.

The shatter of glass prompted a surge of adrenalin inside me. Trying to recall the moves that awarded me a yellow belt, I assumed the narani sogi stance. My ten-year-old brain from years before clicked into gear, and I called out as my aging body stepped into a high twisting hand punch. I yelled again as I spun into an attempted jump kick, a move too advanced for me, but one I’d wanted to master since watching the black-belts as a kid. I spun and tried out a double-knife hand strike, slicing through air, anticipating contact with a real person.

Before I could engage an opponent, the room seemed to freeze around me. The noise faded to silence; stools raised above heads hovered there; grunts caught in men’s throats; and all eyes fell on me.

Tom was the first to smile. He stepped up and clapped me on the shoulder, tense and extended in a low punch. “You got some fancy moves there, Peter. Care to teach me some of that karate stuff?”

I pulled in my limbs, tight with the promise of action, and sucked in breath. “It’s taekwondo; it’s Korean.”

“You don’t say?” said Choco, the corn-cob pipe somehow still locked between his teeth. “I bet plenty of guy’s would like to know how to fight like that.”

“It’s not just about fighting,” I said. “It’s about discipline and relaxation, too.””Relaxation?” Tom chuckled. “If there’re two things the men in Mensland like doing, it’s fighting and relaxing. How ’bout you get a class together?”

“A class?” My lack of serious expertise niggled at me, but the men seemed genuinely impressed with my meagre skills. “Um . . . sure. I could do that.”

“Congratulations, Peter,” said Tom. “Took you less than a day to find your thing.”

Really? I was pretty good for a ten-year-old, but as a middle-aged company man, I’d never thought of taekwondo as my thing. I smiled like an idiot.

“We can fix you a place to live, easy enough,” said Choco. “Bungy and Tyler take care of the camp. They’ll find you a spot.”


“You’re going to love it, Peter,” said Tom, his grin like a seal of acceptance. “We cook game over a fire every evening; sleep under the stars on clear nights. You want to be alone, be alone. You want to join in with the story-telling, join in. It’s a great life.”

“Sounds—awesome.” I’d urged Olivia and Izzy to try camping, but they said the wild was for wild animals and creepy crawlies. And as for cooking over a fire . . .

I thanked Lanky for the drink and thought about offering to help clean up the place, but decided against it when I noticed the card players set to work straightening furniture, the four of them chatting amicably as if moments before they hadn’t been trying to beat each other’s brains out with wooden stools.

Instead, I allowed Tom and Choco to lead me outside and down the narrow street, and to introduce me to any man we encountered. My arm ached from shaking so many hands. At the edge of town, we stopped to consider the sun hovering on the horizon. I wouldn’t be returning to Graceland that day, I realized.

“Over there’s Manly Forest,” said Choco pointing to a deep green fuzz in the distance.

“There’s a forest here?” I asked, ignoring the trend in unoriginal names.

“Sure, sure. It provides all the resources we need to survive. An ex-forester makes sure we don’t overdo it with the hunting and logging and that the water stays good.”

“It sounds like Mensland has everything a man could ever want,” I said.

“. . . except women,” said Tom quietly.

“So, um—” I didn’t know how to ask. “How do the men get on without women?”

“We live how we want, and then we die,” replied Choco matter-of-factly. “We’re like insects, I guess.”

“Except insects do their darnedest to breed while they’re alive,” I argued.

“Yeah, well, a man can’t have everything, can he?”

Can’t he? I thought about my life in Graceland. It was easy, it was safe, and I had a family I adored. The only thing that bothered me about my existence in the perfect female world, was that it was so damn boring.

“So, you going to stick around, then?” asked Tom scratching his crotch.

I thought about Olivia and Izzy and weighed my blessings against a life of doing my newly-discovered ‘thing’ in Mensland. If I was to master the jump spin kick, I’d have to start running and stretching again, and some sort of schedule would be required for classes. It might take a few weeks, but I’d return to Graceland a happier and healthier man. “I guess I’ll stick around for a bit,” I replied with a grin. “I can go back anytime, right?”

Choco returned the grin in a secret man language and beckoned me forward. “Sure, sure,” he said. “Anytime.”

As the dusty street abandoned its building and widened to stark plains identical to the entrance from Graceland, Tom cleared his throat and turned to me sheepishly. “There is just one other thing you need to know about Mensland before you get too comfortable, Peter. It’s a bit contentious among us mensfolk—some are for it, and some are dead against it, but most agree it’s necessary.”

My insides squirmed at the new edge in his voice. “What is it?”

“We have a leader—of sorts,” Choco picked up. “More of a figure head, really, but as the most sensible among us, if there’s any issue which can’t be resolved by a good drinking session or fight or persuasion of the trio . . .” He paused to clear his throat. “. . . she has the final say.”

At the feminine pronoun, my squirming insides felt like they’d collapsed altogether. “She?”

“Queen Bernice,” replied Tom. “You can meet her tomorrow. She’s actually pretty cool, considering . . .”

After a minute of silent walking, my shoes tossing up dust with careless abandon, as if my dreams of freedom and adventure hadn’t just been shattered by the knowledge that even in Mensland, men were controlled by a single female entity, just like Graceland, I had to ask. “Nothing against the queen, but after all you’ve told me about men being free to do whatever they want, doesn’t it bother either of you that Mensland is under the rule of a woman?”

Tom and Choco glanced at each, their expressions blank, and then both men opened their mouths wide to let loose a torrent of laughter.

“What’s so funny?”

It was another minute before Tom could hold on to a string of words without breaking into a fit of hysteria. “Everyone’s got to have a thing, Peter.”

I searched inside myself to find logic in the reply, but came up empty. “I don’t understand. What’s having a thing got to do with Queen Bernice?”

Choco chuckled with an obvious, but unsuccessful, attempt at seriousness. “Don’t tell her I told you, but Queen Bernice’s real name is Barry.” He threw a wink to the breeze. “Being queen is his thing—that and his Saturday night show. Some guys are funny about it, but Barry—Bernice—lives for it.”

“It’s a hoot, Peter,” said Tom. “You’ll love it. Sometimes, we even get up on stage with her.” With that, he and Choco danced ahead, waving their arms and kicking their feet in a camp display of cheerfulness far removed from the display of testosterone in the saloon.

I shook my head at the irony and wondered if I should turn back, reach Graceland before morning and renounce Mensland as a farce. In the dying light, the hazy green promise of Manly Forest thickened on the horizon. Tom and Choco began to sing a pre-Flash tune I vaguely recalled liking in high school. “Ah, what the hell.” I was surprised at how easily the dance steps came.