Last words & epigraphs
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Minor Heroes Save You
In an alley, thugs with black masks over their eyes mug young Benny and his girlfriend Melody with bats. They demand that they give up their stuff, and they do. Benny hands over his wallet as he trembles next to Melody, then WHOMP—someone from above drops down in front of them and starts swinging so fast they can’t keep up and even though they stand frozen in front of the spectacle, Benny can’t breathe. It’s over. Three bloodied thugs lie motionless on the ground. Benny feels like he’s run five miles and clutches his chest.
“Spider-Man,” Melody says. “Thank god.”
The hero wears a red leotard and sunglasses. He drops a baseball bat, broken, next to one of the heaving thieves and picks up Benny’s wallet and looks at his credit cards, then the cash, and takes a twenty.
“Nope, not Spider-Man,” he says, winking as he hands Benny his wallet.
He turns over a thug and searches him, finds a money clip, and pushes the money, along with Benny’s twenty, into a pocket in his leotard.
“Superman, then?” Melody asks, disappointed. She looks at her heaving boyfriend and then at the muscular hero.
“Lady, I can’t even begin to explain to you why that’s not even possible, but here’s the deal.” He finds a pack of cigarettes on one of the thugs and lights one. “This is a mugging. They didn’t have guns. They probably weren’t going to hit you with a baseball bat as long as you cooperated. They might have roughed up your boyfriend here if he had given them trouble, but look—and I mean this in the most inoffensive and objective way possible—your boyfriend does not look like the type of guy that would give these guys trouble, you know what I’m saying?”
“I see,” she says. She looks Benny up and down like she knows what he says is true and that it pisses her off. “I don’t think Benny would have tried to rough them up.”
“The short of it is that this is a minor crime. Minor heroes save you from minor crimes, not Spider-Man or Superman (if that were even possible). You can call me Fast Enough Man.”
Melody blushes and hides behind her long brown hair.
“Fast Enough Man because I can move very fast, but not that fast. Fast enough to kick thugs’ asses, but that’s about it. Niche market. I’d be no match for a real villain, like the Lizard or the Melter. I’m not even sure if I actually have any super powers—I’m just really, really fast. Not bad dough if you let the bad dudes mug a few people first.”
He takes a drag off the cigarette. Melody contorts her face into a surprised and confused mess of wrinkles.
“I’m kidding.” He turns over another thug and takes his wallet and removes the money. “Seriously.”
“Are they OK, Fast Enough Man?”
“Sure,” he says, walking out of the alley and onto the well-lit street. Benny and Melody follow him out and see that they didn’t need to walk down the unlit alley in the first place.
“You guys need a ride somewhere?” Fast Enough Man asks.
“Sure. My car’s a few blocks away,” Benny volunteers.
Fast Enough Man gives them a lift in his Passat.
At home, one of the thugs cleans the blood off of his face and looks at the wide bruises across his back where Fast Enough Man pounded him with the baseball bat. He really only needed to hit him once, he thinks.
The Thug lives a thug’s life; sleeps on a bare mattress in the middle of the floor, heats his food in the can that contains it, wears a black mask and a black knit hat at night when he works, and sometimes goes weeks without a payday, especially when heroes are about.
No heroes come for him when the pipes have frozen and burst and the Thug has to go for three days without water because the landlord is too cheap to call a plumber, or when the Thug wakes to find the landlord standing in his underwear in the kitchen, bending out the window to remove the Thug’s houseplants from the fire escape because they are a fire hazard, or when the Thug must bear unreasonable rent increases, ants, and loud bass-heavy music at all hours from below. No heroes come when Fast Enough Man steals money from thugs.
It begins to storm. The naked Thug stretches out on his mattress in the dark and looks at the ceiling as hundreds of water droplets form in the cracks, then fall, like indoor rain.
He lets the water soak him and the mattress and tries to sleep, but can’t because he’s cold. He schemes of one day finding something to do instead of thugging and makes a mental list of his skills: lock picking, pick pocketing, getaway car driving, and baseball bat fighting. He tries to match another job to these skills but can’t. He’s a thug. Maybe he will go back to school.
The rain gets worse. The Thug makes little splashes with his fingers in the puddles forming around him. The mattress can hold no more water and will take days to dry. The Thug wishes that somebody would save him.
He hears footsteps and machinery on the roof and runs to the window to look up, but can’t see anything. The rain slows inside, even though it’s still going strong outside. Somebody has fixed the leaks. Through the window, he sees a young roofing crew in white coveralls dashing down the side of the row house as if in flight.
They pile into a white van that flies them away into the rain. In his bedroom, he falls asleep smiling on his soaked mattress because the Tar Teens have paid him a visit and it’s a miracle.
Fast Enough Man has an itch that can’t be scratched. No matter how much he drinks, he doesn’t get drunk because of his nearly inhuman metabolism. Each night after work, he goes to Zook’s on the way home and orders a bottle of Wild Turkey and watches the news. On television, Spider-Man helps with the war effort, webbing up a whole pile of bad guys for the television crew.
“Usual, Fast Enough Man?” The bartender wipes the bar in front of a visibly shaking Fast Enough Man.
The bartender puts a bottle next to a glass full of ice.
“What do you think of that?” The bartender points to the television screen.
“He’s a true American.”
“Can’t argue with you there.”
Fast Enough Man hates his metabolism. No matter how much he drinks, he is always just out of reach of drunkenness. After each glass, he waits to see if he feels anything, but never does. So he drinks more. The Wild Turkey becomes harder to swallow, but he is quite certain that he will become drunk after just one more drink. So he has another.
He watches the big clock on the wall move slowly forward. The evening news on the television above the bar becomes incomprehensible. He has another.
His non-drunkenness pisses him off. He lifts the Wild Turkey bottle to his lips and gulps. Nothing.
Overcome by sober rage, he tears a barstool out of the floor. Whoa, he thinks. He never could do that before. He throws the stool over the bar and into the liquor bottles, then jumps on the counter and pulls the chandelier down and hurls it at the bartender.
“What the fuck?” the bartender asks. He crawls beneath the bar.
Fast Enough Man drinks down the rest of the bottle and feels a sharp pain in his stomach, but his mind remains clear. He shakes his head and leaves the bar, gets in his car and drives out onto the highway, swerving as if to mimic what he wishes he felt after drinking an entire bottle of bourbon.
Somebody has landed on Fast Enough’s roof.
“Erratic driver, Captain Traffic commands you to pull over!”
As Fast Enough Man complies, Captain Traffic tears the roof off the Passat and throws it onto the side of the road. Cars swerve and scrape against the guardrail to avoid the flying metal as Fast Enough Man pulls his car to the side of the road.
“You didn’t have to do that,” he says. “I was going to pull over.”
“Well, you’re clearly drunk,” Captain Traffic says. “I’m not big on drunk driving.”
“No, I’m not drunk. That’s the point. I can’t get drunk.”
“Well, you smell like a liquor store, and you’re driving like an idiot.”
“You shouldn’t have ripped the roof off of my car.”
“I thought, perhaps mistakenly, that there was a woman in distress on the passenger side. I’ve been wrong on that before, so I’m sorry.”
“Well, I’m sorry, too.”
Fast Enough Man takes a swing at the Captain, but misses. Captain Traffic punches Fast Enough Man in the face. Although technically still a minor hero, Captain Traffic is a formidable opponent and despite Fast Enough Man’s swiftness, he is no match for the Captain who beats the crap out of him, writes him a ticket for reckless driving, and steals his roofless Passat.
Explosions explode in the distance. People surround Spider-Man as he gulps water from a gallon jug. One fans him while another sews a tear in his red-and-blue Spider-Man costume. Others stand around and check script notes.
Yes, it’s true that the war is for the most part unscripted, but for Spider-Man, who isn’t used to anything so unorganized, the U.S. Army has agreed to allow him a loose outline with liberal room for improvisation. It’s worked out great for Spider-Man because he looks like a war hero without ever being in danger. The U.S. looks great because Spider-Man is cool and has no idea that they aren’t in the Middle East at all, but deep in the heart of Texas on an old movie set.
“It’s 112 damn degrees here,”Spider-Man says. “Who the fuck forgot that little detail when we decided to do this shit.”
Spider-Man has not liked being embedded and complains often of the unbearable heat, although it’s nowhere near 112. More like a dry 85.
Ms. Burnside, the script doctor, sits next to Spider-Man and thumbs through the script. She doesn’t like how it’s going and has asked the Army for a rewrite, but so far they have been reluctant to comply. The Army seems to want more physical action and complicated stunts in the script, but Ms. Burnside would prefer to see more emotional behind-the-scenes-style drama. Spider-Man is hot in his costume and by breaking up the ass-kicking with, perhaps, a romance, Spider-Man might not be so cranky.
The Major assigned to take care of Spider-Man is in charge of the rewrites and the one who has been reluctant to approve a “Desert Spider” costume. He sits in an air-conditioned trailer and reviews Ms. Burnside’s notes.
Spider-Man curls up in a hammock near his own trailer and catches some Zs while the staff get some much needed time to take care of all the things they need to do for Spider-Man but can’t get done when Spider-Man is awake because Spider-Man needs a smoothie or because Spider-Man’s knees itch. Don’t even ask about that one.
Ms. Burnside enters the Major’s trailer and approaches his desk.
“Spider-Man is hot,” she says.
“Look, I can’t say whether or not ratings would go down if Spider-Man were to wear something a little bit cooler, but I’m not willing to take that chance. Every time Spider-Man has changed costumes, it’s caused a controversy.”
“We can’t afford it. If you haven’t noticed, there’s a war going on.”
“I know, but it’s not just fatigue. His web shooters are clogged from all the military food he’s been eating. His hands and feet have been sticking to the sand. He needs a summer outfit. Or some romance, you know? Something that’s not so exhausting.”
“Can’t do it,” he says. “No costume change, and no goddamned girlfriend.” The Major gets out of his chair and moves toward her. He sits on the edge of the desk and puts his hand on her arm. “Unless, of course, you’d be willing to offer something up in return.”
“I’m not sure I like what you’re saying,” she says.
“Well, look at it this way,” the Major says. “I can be persuaded. I’m very persuadable. And nobody says we can’t have a little romance of our own.”
“I don’t think so,” she says.
“No, really,” he says. “If you sleep with me, I’ll get your man some shorts. He seems to be very important to you.”
“He’s not.” Ms. Burnside slams the door behind her.
The Major hadn’t anticipated that. He gets Spider-Man’s staff man on the phone.
“Yes, I’m afraid one of your employees has been sexually harassing me,” the Major begins. As Spider-Man snoozes in the hammock, he ignores the light buzzing of his spider sense. The Tar Teens, however, are passing through and know trouble when they sense it and even though it’s not a roofing crisis, per se, they can’t let a crime go unpunished.
“Yes, that’s right. Sexual harassment.”
The Tar Teens cut the phone line, enter the trailer through both entrances and douse the Major with tar through their tar-emitting hands. After Gravel Lad finishes the job with rocks from his Bottomless Gravel Bucket, the Teens make a swift exit as the Major stands like a statue, with the phone still in his hand.
After dispatching Fast Enough Man, Captain Traffic feels like he could use a drink too, and swerves off the highway and hits the 7 for a bottle of Thunderbird. On the road, he closes his eyes to the wind and cuts across lanes as he careens along toward downtown. He doesn’t care.
Unlike Fast Enough Man, Captain Traffic’s metabolism works like everybody else’s, so after half the bottle is gone, he is quite drunk. He makes a hard left across opposing traffic and runs the car into the wall of an office supply store. Despite that the first thing he would tell an auditorium full of elementary school kids would be to wear their seat belts, he has been driving without, and, as a result, when the car comes to a stop, the Captain flies out of his seat, slams into the wall, and lands onto the sidewalk.
“Shit,” he says. He crawls around and looks for the Thunderbird.
Benny and Melody walk by on their way from a movie and see Captain Traffic looking around frantically.
“Can you help me find my wine?” he asks Benny. Melody tugs at Benny’s arm. After all, they’ve been mugged before.
“Let’s go,” she says.
“It’s OK, Melody,” Benny reassures her. “I think he’s a hero.”
“Yes! You’re correct. I’m Captain Traffic,” the Captain squawks. “Now, do you see a bottle of wine around?”
“I think this is it smashed all over the place,” he says, pointing at the shattered glass scattered across the sidewalk.
The Captain looks around, crushed, and stands. “Crap,” he says.
“You wrecked your car. I thought Captain Traffic was all about safety and good manners,” Benny says.
“You’re drunk,” Melody says.
“And you’re a fox,” the Captain says. He looks Melody up and down.
“Oh.” She blushes. “Thank you.”
“Now help me find my wine. That glass is from the car windshield. The bottle rolled somewhere.”
“I’m sorry, but I think your wine is gone,” she says.
The Captain shrugs his shoulders and puts his arm around Melody.
“Oh,” she says. “Captain, I don’t think...”
“Hey, you can’t do that, you prick,” Benny says.
“Who’s going to stop me? You?”
Benny punches Captain Traffic in the face. The Captain stumbles backward and gets twisted in his cape.
Melody looks genuinely astonished.
“That was a very cheap shot,” the Captain says, untangling himself.
Sloshed and off-balance, the Captain takes a big swing at Benny and hits him in the nose. Benny grabs his face and staggers back as the Captain hits him in the stomach. Benny falls down as the Thug walks by in his civilian clothes. He hates Captain Traffic and tackles him from behind, punching the Captain until he is subdued. The Thug stands and smoothes out his shirt.
Melody hugs the Thug. She doesn’t recognize him from when he mugged her and Benny. He’s very handsome, shaved and combed in his Dockers and Polo shirt.
“You want to go for ride?” the Thug asks.
The Thug and Melody take the wrecked Passat and drive over to Melody’s house, parking the car across the lawn.
In Space, Galactus the Devourer, eater of worlds, approaches the tiny Earth, savoring the aromas that waft into his giant nostrils. As the Thug and Melody embrace on the living room floor and begin to have the best sex of their lives, Galactus dips a finger in the Earth’s icing and takes a lick.
“Mmmmmm,” says Galactus. He rubs his belly.
The Thug and Melody do not mistake the movement of the Earth or the deafening sound of a satisfied Galactus for a monumental orgasm, but pause as the shaking subsides. Probably nothing. They begin again as Galactus smiles. The Earth tastes pretty good to him, so he takes another lick and knocks Melody off of the Thug. Galactus salivates. A drip from his mouth destroys Los Angeles.
“Something is happening,” the Thug says.
“I don’t think Fast Enough Man is going to be able to save us,” Melody says as Galactus’s head lowers over North America, blocking the sun.
She is right. The living room darkens.
Fast Enough Man has tried to drink too much and has hit his head and passed out in an empty motel swimming pool. Despite appearances, he is perfectly sober. Were he conscious, he would pray for Captain Traffic to rescue him with his tough love, but after his ass-kicking, the Captain returned to duty, still drunk, and fell from the ledge of an overpass onto the roof of a moving semi. He is about to tear the roof from it for practice, but thinks of the Thug and Melody and hopes inexplicably that things will work out for them even though the Thug has just beaten him up. After the Thug stole his girlfriend, Benny bought a bat and turned to crime. In an alley, Benny swings the bat into the stomach of a man in order to get him to give up his stuff. Bricks begin to fall from the buildings around him. Were they there, the Tar Teens would stabilize the structures before they crush Benny and his victim, but the truly heroic Teens, in youthful exuberance, tar roofs in need at an alarming rate despite the suspicion that things beyond their control are about to make things much, much worse. And Spider-Man? He takes three aspirin to kill his raging spider sense and tries to fall back to sleep under the terrible Texas sun.
The Thug and Melody begin to make love in earnest because even though neither of them will say it, they both know that after all the shaking, after everything on every shelf has fallen to the ground and shattered, the world will begin to end when Galactus grabs the Earth in both hands and bites into Pennsylvania. He will chew slowly and savor it before moving to the next state. He’s waited a long time to eat Earth and despite all of the trouble down here, he will find it delicious.