Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

‘It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane’

“Do you know how difficult it is to be a superhero in Portland?”

The kid just stared, slack-jawed and bored. He considered the question, but barely. There was hardly any spark in his hazel eyes, and his mouth hung open slightly, revealing a hint of nicotine-stained teeth. His hand moved slowly to his coffee cup; the question needed caffeine to stick.

I was speaking in a low voice, but didn’t need to. There were only two other customers in the diner, a man at the long Formica counter reading the morning newspaper and a woman in a booth in the furthest corner applying liberal amounts of lipstick to an already overwrought face. Neither was paying any attention to me.

I repeated the question, softer this time, and then asked myself again why I was talking to this kid, who obviously wasn’t interested. Professional jealousy, I guess; I saw him reading the latest issue of Green Lantern. I sat down and introduced myself (an alias, of course) and tried to engage him in conversation.

It may be pretty risky, telling a complete stranger that I’m a superhero. Stories of Batman’s various lady friends meeting gruesome deaths at the hands of villains and Lois Lane being constantly menaced by Lex Luthor because she knows who Clark Kent really is are commonplace in comics. I don’t live in a comic, however, and I have few friends. Not do I have a nemesis. I fight crime, sure, but the crooks I catch are petty thieves and don’t have the means to launch a full-scale retaliatory strike against me or anyone else. So it’s not as dangerous as one might think.

But this kid was obviously not listening. I was about to let him finish his scrambled eggs and hash browns in peace when he said, “How difficult is it?”

It took me off-guard. I settled down slowly, not sure if he was talking to me or responding to a question someone had asked him days ago. Then he leaned forward slightly, responding to the code of superheroes: Everything’s secretive.

To give him a sense of drama, I looked around quickly, leaving the impression that there were spies everywhere. “Well,” I said, “take your friend there.” I motioned to his comic. “He gets cosmic threats every few issues or so, fights colorful bad guys, and hangs out with the Justice League. Do I get any of that?”

He pondered that. I could see his eyes narrow and his lips move up and down, like a fish gulping water.

“Any hot babes?”

“Another myth. Most of the women I run into are fat, ugly prostitutes or timid housewives with three kids or old women with thicker beards than me. The men aren’t any better, let me tell you.”

He flinched. I don’t know why. He sipped from his coffee and asked me, very seriously, if I was going to kill him.

“Good lord, no! What kind of a stupid question is that? I told you I’m a superhero.”

“Superheroes are killing all kinds of people these days.”

Good point. I considered this. “No, I’m not going to kill you. I know it’s in vogue, but it’s still a silly question.”

This disappointed him. He seemed to withdraw, suck himself up like one of those tank beetles my friends and I used to torment. Why the fact that I wasn’t going to kill him let him down confused me, but I let it pass. He believed in different things.

I began to get up. “Listen, kid,” I said, hoping he was still listening, “I just told you this because you don’t need to read comics to find superheroes. The real ones are much more interesting.”

As I turned to go, he said, “So what’s your name?”

I felt a flush rise in my cheeks. I am not terribly proud of my chosen moniker. “I’m the Answer Man, kid. I got all the answers.”

Okay, it’s goofy. I’ll admit it. You try coming up with a better name they’re all taken.

***

I have a tiny reputation around town. The cops know me and don’t like me. The street people have heard of me, and I don’t know what they think of me. Gloria, the waitress at the pancake house across the Ross Island Bridge, knows me. I told her my secret just like I told the kid at the diner, because I wanted to. She’s one of my only friends.

We went out on a date once and decided it was a complete disaster. No sexual chemistry whatsoever, and for once, we were both honest and admitted it. It did lead to a good conversation about my superheroics and what it would mean if I got married.

“I couldn’t marry,” I said. That seemed to be it. She understood. She’s now married to a welder, not a bad guy. We still talk often, late into the night. I wonder if he’s jealous. I bet he would be if he knew his wife’s best friend was a superhero.

“So, Enforcer,” she said to me once (I have changed my alter ego’s name at least four times, and I’m not settled on Answer Man; I have been the Dark Knight — copyright infringement there; Crusader, Enforcer, and now Answer Man), “why aren’t you more famous? You not a very good superhero?”

There are some questions that make everyone uncomfortable; one about obscurity rank high up there. I consider myself a relatively effective hero. There may be some speculation about why someone dresses up in a dark blue body suit with a red “A” stitched to the front (no cape) and goes roaming through the dank parts of Portland saving prostitutes from drug-addled pimps and overzealous johns, but I know, deep psychological perversions aside, it’s because I want to help. Maybe it’s not the traditional way, but I think I’ve made an impact. The lack of fame doesn’t bother me.

At least that’s the standard answer, the one I gave Gloria. She bought it. But early in the morning, back at my room at the Stark Hotel, huddled in my cheap bed, too shot through with adrenaline to sleep, I know certain things. I would explain them, but I always brush them quickly from my mind and forget. Some stones are best left unturned. Maggots crawl underneath.

There is, however, always the thought that I’m fooling myself. I’m thirty-one years old, have all the money I could ever want (thanks, Dad), and I dress up almost every night to indulge my sense of justice. We don’t live in a comic book world, even the more complicated comic book world that has evolved over the past twenty years. When I was a child, I picked up an issue of Batman with the Joker on the cover, grinning furiously and holding a card with Batman pinned to it, squirming like Prufrock. It disturbed me, because up to then my only experience with the Caped Crusader was through Adam West and the silly television show. I read the issue, which was full of revenge and murder, and was intrigued and captivated. I collected comics until they killed Jean Grey, and then moved on with my life. Now I’m back, living out my childhood fantasies. But nothing is ever easy.

Gloria often asks about the crimes I stop. “Do you ever really solve anything, Stephen?” She was drinking tequila straight from the bottle as we sat up on Council Crest, watching the sunset. Before she got married, we occasionally got together as friends, and I took the night off.

I asked her what she meant.

“I mean, say you see a mugging. Cut and dried, right? So you swoop down –”

“I don’t swoop.”

“– and beat the hell out of the guy — I’m assuming the perpetrator is a man, you understand, and the poor little victim a woman. You beat him up, tie him up, hang him from a lamppost — whatever you tough guys do. Problem solved, right?”

I nodded. She took another swig. I don’t drink.

“But,” she continued, “the jails are overflowing. Assuming the victim wants to testify, the perp’s still out on the street the next day. So maybe he comes to trial, but it’s her word against his. No physical evidence, if you get my drift. So he’s free, and even if he does get sent up, it’s not for long. And he hasn’t learned anything, and you can’t be everywhere at once.”

“You know how to bring a guy down.”

“I’m just wondering if it bugs you.”

I often think about those sorts of things during the day, when I cruise the city planning the night’s patrol routes or checking on people I’ve saved or befriended. I saw a homeless guy under the Ross Island Bridge and remembered that I rescued him from drowning. He didn’t recognize me.

I asked him what his name was, and he couldn’t remember. I asked him if he recalled falling into the river that night, and he didn’t. He was cheery, if a bit addled. I took him to Burger King and bought him lunch. What else could I do?

“Okay, yeah, it bugs me,” I admitted. “But each night that I go out and help someone, that’s one less crime. I’m only one person. I have perspective.”

“It’s good someone does,” she said.

***

The night after I revealed my secret identity to the kid in the diner I saw him again, and was disappointed. I was making my rounds and spotted him rushing out of a convenience store out on the eastside. It was past three in the morning, and the streets were largely deserted. So this kid thought it would be safe to steal. He was carrying a trash bag and holding a small pistol that looked very non-threatening. I was on the roof of an apartment complex across the street when I caught sight of him.

When you’re a superhero, it’s very difficult to get around. I try to patrol across rooftops, because I need the high ground, but it’s difficult in certain sections of town, and the things they don’t tell you in comic books can kill you. People are very sensitive about their roofs, and I’ve faced the shotgun of an angry homeowner more than once. It’s also difficult to get down from the roof, because trees and branches are usually not as handy as they are in fiction. I’ve suffered more injuries from falling than I have at the hands of the “bad guys.” It’s no fun.

So I’m up there, and I need to get down. I have rope and a grappling hook, but again, it doesn’t work as well as you might think. I decided to climb for it, because the kid didn’t look that fast. The drainpipe on the building was sturdy, and I’ve become a master at half-climbing, half-sliding down them to keep them intact and make my passage quicker. In a few seconds I was on the ground, and I gave chase. I was right about the kid — he wasn’t very fast, especially with his loot. I tackled him before he got to the next block.

He was wiry, however, and I couldn’t hold him. He scrambled up and spun, losing his trash bag. I looked up and saw the gun leveled right at me.

I’ve faced guns before, of course. It’s a terrifying ordeal, but I’ve been through it so often I can move past it and into a calm space where you can analyze the situation. The kid gazed at me for thirty long seconds, before recognition dawned. “The Answer Man,” he mumbled.

I stood slowly, not wanting to give him an excuse to shoot. “So far it’s just armed robbery, kid. A felony, sure, but nothing like the shit they’ll fling at you if you pull that trigger. Put it down.”

The old method, the clichéd method, is still the best. Talk them down. Most people don’t want to kill, but most people are capable of it. Give them any excuse to put the gun down, and they’ll take it.

“Is this your first robbery?”

“I’ve pulled a few.” Stupid kid. Not that a masked superhero could testify in court. “Never been caught. Not about to be now.”

“First offense, kid. You can’t be older than eighteen. A slap on the wrist, juvenile hall. You shoot me, and that’s it. You’re in ’til you’re forty.”

“Who can stop me?”

“Do you think you’re smart enough to get away with it? The clerk saw your face. You ever think of wearing a mask? The cops are on their way while you’re talking to me. If you wanted to shoot me, you would’ve done it already. Now come on.”

Amazingly, he smiled. “Yeah, that part about the mask was pretty stupid. They got cameras in there.” He lowered the gun, and I tensed. There comes a point when a superhero has to make a decision. Rush the bad guy or let him surrender. I was nearing that point.

He allowed me to choose the latter. He uncocked the gun, and then turned its handle to me. I took it from him and stowed it away like a teacher secreting a slingshot. “I gotta do this, kid,” I said.

Before he could ask what, I socked him, hard, in the jaw. He went down like an old dictator and yowled. “Why … what the hell …?”

I grabbed his hands and hog-tied him. “I can’t take you in, and the police are still a few minutes away. You have to learn.”

I have to believe he would straighten out. Gloria’s questions about crime and whether I made a difference echoed in my head.

***

“I never noticed this before, Gloria,” I said a few days later, while I was eating lunch, “but you’re gorgeous.”

And she was. Not in a movie-star way — she was close to forty, after all, and had never had plastic surgery — but in a completely natural, good-hearted way. Her red hair wasn’t brilliant, but it was lustrous and full. Her face angled down into a miniature chin, accentuating her full lips and owl-like eyes, which were green flecked with yellow. It was a devastating face, able to launch and then sink more than a thousand ships. She was voluptuous but not plump, and I could see that years of waitressing had sucked a little life out of her. I gazed at her in amazement as she blushed slightly, and then flushed with annoyance.

“We’ve known each other three years and you just noticed that? Honey, I’ve been sparkling for a long time now.”

I sipped my coffee and hid a smile. “I’m not good at these sorts of things.”

“We went out on a date, Stephen. I know.”

I was hopelessly in love with her, but was smart enough to know it would never work. Maybe we were too alike — a relationship should be about two people, not reflections of the same person. But I loved her just the same. I wanted her to be happy. I asked her if she was.

“Manuel is … good to me,” she said after thinking briefly on the subject. “He loves me. But I think he loves the idea of being married even more.”

“Does that bother you?”

“Not as much as I thought it would when I realized it. You take what you can get. That’s life, right? It’s not perfect, but what is? Are you happy with yours?”

She always brought things back around to my nocturnal activity. She couldn’t grasp it, because it didn’t fit into her ordered world. Gloria suppressed a snicker whenever we spoke of my adventures, not in a cruel way, but in the way that told me she was unsure how to feel about them. It made me sad, because I wanted to make her understand. She didn’t see the small good I did; she was too busy with the big picture. What could I do about teenagers shooting their teachers? Or ten-year-olds molesting three-year-olds? Or a government that no longer cared? She wanted to know.

And I kept going out at night. One crime prevented is another brick in the wall of society. It had to be enough.

***

The logistics of superheroing aren’t really all that difficult to get around. Buy a police scanner, own an unobtrusive car that won’t break down in a pinch and make sure you wear a mask. In today’s world of surveillance cameras, the last point might be the most important. Being a superhero, after all, means being a vigilante. Vigilante justice has never been popular in America — a strange fact in a land with the Second Amendment. People talk about it all the time, but when someone actually takes the law into his or her own hands, they are instantly and publicly condemned.

I had my police scanner, a handy instrument for detecting patterns in crime, and occasionally getting a jump on the cops. I kept it in my Honda Accord, which I parked in a lot during the day — I had a monthly reservation. I stay downtown in a cheap hotel even though I have money — I like to be close to the action, not like Bruce Wayne, living in a mansion. See? Even now, as a grown man, I can’t get it out of my head that the heroes of my youth were real, and still are (no one ages in comic books, after all). I look at the scars on my body, from knife fights and gunshots (no Alfred the butler to stitch me up), and I wonder at the absurdity of my life. I donate vast amounts of money to charities around Portland, and know it’s not enough. I can’t stop thinking about Gloria’s skepticism, and the kid’s stupidity. He was just another kid who lost hope. I can’t fight that sort of thing.

I was looking at myself in the mirror the other day and couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. Stephen Logan. Skirting middle age, still youthful but feeling it in my bones more and more, a receding hairline, encroaching on the thick black hair on the top of his head. I’d be bald by fifty, I guessed — a better run than my brother, who’s 35 and already tonsured like a monk. I ran my finger across a scar arching along my septum. I hadn’t shaved in days, but my beard was hardly grown in. “You need a vacation,” I told the haggard face. It agreed with me. My accountant said as much when I went to visit him at tax time.

“Shit.” He waved me to a chair and threw a candy bar at me. Wilson is huge, and bore the brunt of many childhood taunts throughout his school years. So naturally, he’s now rich and married to an ex-Playboy Playmate. I like him for his unusually high moral code and his ruthlessness in dealing with the IRS.

He knows about me. See? Having a secret identity is just too time-consuming. He takes care of all my money, so of course he should know what I’m doing with my time. I told him after six months of dodging, and he loved it. Despite his success, he has a need to live vicariously through others. Like I should talk.

“You need a vacation,” he said. “You look like shit.”

I ate the candy bar slowly. Wilson knows my weakness. Chocolate.

“Beating the hell out of lowlifes takes its toll, Stephen. You need a healing factor.” Since I told Wilson, he’s taken an interest in the comics his 12-year-old read. He’s always telling me the way superheroes in fiction take care of themselves.

“I have a friend,” I told him. “You two would get along famously. Always doubting me.”

“Hey, your hero thing doesn’t bring in the green. That’s what you need me for. So I have a right to criticize.”

Wilson leaned forward, his jowls glistening slightly with early spring sweat. He tapped his sausage-like fingers together like a James Bond villain.

“Do you know what Trish said the other day?” he said. “She said it’s disturbingly close to rape, what you do. A sexual, violent thrill. You enjoy it too much. You’re a fascist, imposing your morality on others.”

Trish, his wife, is a year younger than I (and 15 years younger than Wilson), and devastatingly beautiful. They’ve been married for five years, and during that time, she had shed the image of a trophy wife and become a champion for women’s rights. I was scornful of her when we first met, but now she’s one of my few friends. Now that she has become a social reformer, our positions are reversed. She is dubious about my chosen “occupation.”

I finished the candy bar. “It’s not the first time a superhero has been called a fascist,” I said. “And I don’t impose my morality on others. She thinks I have more power than I do.”

Wilson laughed. “You’re still rich, Stephen, if that’s why you’re here. I’ll take care of everything. Just don’t get killed. You’re my favorite client.”

The night after I spoke to Wilson, I foiled another robbery of a convenience store. I beat up a john who was trying to stiff a prostitute. I made sure to remember the hooker’s face, because in my daytime life I try to help as many marginalized people as I can. I’ve read some essays claiming that prostitutes enjoy the freedom their lifestyle offers. I don’t know any.

All night I thought about Gloria and Wilson and Trish. I slipped and fell on a fire escape and let a cat burglar get away, but not before I had checked out the license plate on the car he was driving. Hopefully the cops would pick him up. I thought about Gloria, who’s married to a welder who thinks marriage is what men do. I thought about my only meeting with Manuel, who came into the diner once not long after my date with Gloria. She introduced us.

“So you’re the pal,” he said to me.

I nodded, not in the mood to talk. The night before a mugger had tried karate on me. He got lucky and landed a kick in my midsection before I took him down.

“Gloria tells me about you, pal. Tells me you’re a swell guy.”

Manuel was muscular and dark. His black hair lay on his head like a whipped dog. His smile was wide and not particularly friendly. It looked like he practiced it.

He leaned in close to me so Gloria, who was at the other end of the counter, couldn’t hear. “She says you like helping people. Helped her, in fact.” I couldn’t figure out how I had helped Gloria. “Thank you. I love her. I’m going to marry her. But for now, keep it a secret.”

Two months later, they were married. I attended, but only said hello briefly to Manuel. Those few short sentences were all he ever said to me. Gloria told me plenty about him, and I’m happy for her. But as I sat on the roof that night after my visit with Wilson and thought back to our initial meeting, something struck me as strange about Manuel. I just couldn’t figure it out.

Superheroes, in my experience, don’t have superheroic problems. I’m rich and idle, but I pay taxes, using my father’s dry-cleaning business as a front — it always struck me as surprising how much that man made in dry-cleaning and how little he spent. He had stores all over the place, and when he died, my mother and I discovered he had played the stock market for years and made a fortune. The man was a genius as making money and had no talent for enjoying it. But that’s a normal, everyday problem for me — a father who took care of us financially but was frosty emotionally. He never beat us and rarely yelled, so who am I to complain? Now, I sit on rooftops in a spandex suit, filling it out rather nicely, I admit, and worry that my best friend is happy, that the kid from the diner wouldn’t become a hardened criminal, that I would live a long and happy life and find love somewhere — normal stuff. I don’t worry about threats to the galactic order or demons coming out of steles to ravage humankind or despots clad in steel plotting world domination. You would think putting on a costume makes one a different person. But it doesn’t.

“It’s good that you have no doubts,” Gloria said to me one day at the diner, while she was on a break. “People shouldn’t have doubts. That’s what’s wrong with the world — too many people have doubts. Yes.”

I questioned her logic. “Isn’t doubt what makes us strive for more? To reach higher? I said I have no doubts about my ‘mission,’ if you want to call it that. But … about how to achieve my goals — yeah, of course I do.”

She shook her head. “What you do is stupid, Stephen. Don’t get me wrong. But I admire it. I mean, you know, don’t you? Know deep within you that this is right.”

“And you don’t? Believe what you’re doing is right?

“I … believe in many things, Stephen. Happiness in life is not one of them.”

***

I was far away when it happened. I had heard of a drug ring operating out of Hillsboro, of all places, and had gone out, incognito, to check it out. As I was scoping the place out the call came across the police scanner. A woman had brutally murdered her husband with an axe, and then shot herself with his revolver. I shuddered when I heard the description of the crime.

Then the names came across. The police had identified the man as one Manuel Casata, his wife Gloria. I felt something wet snap inside my head. I screamed.

Looking back on it now, I find myself outside my body, like I’m watching a movie of my life. Every time I remember, I’m surprised to see myself getting out of the car, very calmly. In my head, I know I was screaming. I go to the house where the suspected drug ring had its headquarters, bust in the door, and charge. In my memories, I congratulate myself for being so forceful, so decisive. Anything to dampen the sounds in my mind. They are caught completely off-guard, the dealers are, and I smash into them with the force of a gale, sweeping crack to the floor, breaking the spindly wooden table in two, and turning on them with a maniacal look in my eyes. At this point, I lose sight of myself. There is a great deal of cocaine and PCP dust in the air; there is a fire burning somewhere, and the house is poorly ventilated. Smoke drifts into the picture, and armed punks, converging on me, block my view of myself. But I know what happened from the police report. There were eight men in the house. None left under their own power. Two were permanently crippled, four were in critical condition for a week. I shook for an hour afterward, trying, like Lady Macbeth, to wipe the blood from my hands. I’m lucky no one died.

I next catch sight of myself at Wilson’s, banging on his door at 2:30 in the morning. He opens the door, wrapped in a red satin robe with a small pistol in the pocket. I can tell these things; I’m a superhero. He lived in a large house near the river; his son goes to school with the children of some Trail Blazers.

I see us there, and soon Trish joins us, and I talk and talk and talk but I can’t remember anything I say. And then it’s morning, and I tell them I’m okay, and I’m going to go see if I can get any information out of the police. I have a tiny reputation around town. The cops know me.

“I can’t tell you anything,” Detective Francona says to me. “Go home, Stephen. Most of the guys down here don’t know about your little nocturnal escapades. They’d chuck you in jail if they knew. I only put up with you because Hulce thinks you’re ‘quirky.’ ” Hulce is his partner. He’s two years older than I. We were once on the same community soccer team.

I never did get all the details. It came out that Manuel had been cheating on her, and beat her when she challenged him about it. I didn’t believe it. Gloria? My Gloria? And she took it, for a while, until she couldn’t take it anymore. She exceeded her tolerance level, and fetched an axe. I kept asking myself why she didn’t come to me, tell me about it, but I have no good answers. And I wonder if I ever did.

**********

[I don’t recall if I had heard of the trend of real-life “superheroes” that were a minor thing in the late 1990s/early 2000s when I wrote this – I suspect I had, but I can’t remember. I just wanted to write a story about a “realistic” “superhero,” because if you think about it, even a “realistic” character like, say, the Punisher would be ridiculous in the real world – he’d be dead or in jail extremely quickly. So I thought it would be fun to write a story in which a vigilante has to deal with the “real world” – apartment complexes, houses that are far apart from each other, the fact that it’s kind of hard to find crime even if you’re looking for it. Even Stephen’s wealth is a bit ridiculous – wouldn’t he still have to run the dry-cleaning business? But let’s not worry about that!!!! So this is my superhero story. Sorry if it got a bit dark there at the end! My next story is the longest one I’ve written. It’s really long, just to warn you. It’s at least twice as long as this one, but I dig it. Just a bit of a warning for next week!]

2 Comments

    1. Greg Burgas

      I know that, but, you know, I lived in the Oregon one, and I’ve never been to Maine.

      I hope nothing like this has happened to your during your vigilante days! 🙂

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.