Friday, January 1, 2010

Episode One. Splendid Man's Literary Discoveries

I opened the window, moved aside, and vibrated the teeth of my SOS Comb. Splendid Man zoomed into the room before I could count to one.

“What’s the trouble, Will?” he said.

“I lost my damn keys,” I said.

“Where did you last see them?”

“I had them when I drove home after dinner,” I said. “But I can’t for the life of me remember what I did with them after that.”

“That’s easily taken care of, Will. What time did you get home?”

“About 6:30.”

“Well, then, I’ll just fly back through the time barrier and see what you did with them.”

“But Splendid Man, if you tamper with the past, couldn’t that screw up the future somehow?”

“No, Will,” he said. “I’ve tried before to change the course of history, but it just doesn’t work. That’s why I felt confident, for example, in banishing Giganto the Splendid Mandrill to the distant past, knowing that even his great size and Strontiumite vision would have no effect on the millennia to come.”

“Okay then,” I said. “If you don’t mind.”

Splendid Man vanished in a blur and reappeared instants later. “Look in the garbage, Will,” he said.

I did so, and sure enough, under the Burger King bag, there were my keys.

“You’d let so much trash accumulate in your car,” said Splendid Man, “that when you carried it all up, your keys got mixed in with it.”

“Thanks, pal,” I said. “Listen, I hope you don’t mind me using my SOS Comb for something this insignificant.”

“Certainly not. Feel free to summon me with your SOS Comb for any reason, not only because you’ve fallen off a tall building, have undergone a bizarre physical transformation, or are menaced by a motorcycle gang. And the same goes for the toll-free number at my Citadel of Contemplation on the moon.”

“Appreciate it, Splendid Man,” I said. “Hey, now that you’re here, can you stay a while? Or do you have to run?”

“Fly, Will. I don’t think I do, but let me take a quick check.” He turned his body in a complete circle, holding his head at an odd angle. “Everything looks fine. There is a comet hurtling toward Earth, but I see that my Canadian pal, Northern Light, is already zipping off to dispatch it with his power medallion.”

“That’s great,” I said, heading for the kitchen to mix a couple of drinks. “Why don’t you take a load off and we’ll talk.”

“I’d love to, Will,” he said. “But on one condition.”

“What’s that, Splendid Man?”

“That you knock off this ‘Splendid Man’ business. Aren’t we good enough friends yet that you can stop addressing me by my title?”

“Sure thing…Cal,” I said with a grin, using the short form of his native Strontiumese name.

When I returned to the living room Cal was sitting on my couch and scanning my bookshelves. He took a sip of his Manhattan and asked, “So, Will, are there any more books you can recommend for me to read?”

More books!” I said, my mouth agape. Just last week I’d recommended the entire Britannica Great Books series to him. “You don’t mean you’ve already read every volume you were interested in!”

“I’ve already read every volume, Will. Period. Haven’t I mentioned that, in addition to physical Splendid Speed, the argon-tinged atmosphere and lesser gravity of Earth grant astounding mental speed to all Strontiumese?”

He had, in fact, mentioned that, and in precisely those words. But I still couldn’t get used to it. “And I guess Splendid Vision really helps navigate that tiny print,” I grinned.

“That it does,” he said, in complete earnest. “And I must say, I enjoyed every page of every book.”

I was afraid he would say that. Teaching the big lug some discernment was not turning out to be easy. “Okay,” I said carefully. “But surely you must have enjoyed some more than others?”

He took another sip of his Manhattan, a slow one this time, and I sensed him stalling. For the first time I saw nervousness in those glacier-blue eyes. “Well, of course, I’m no expert…”

“Just tell me what you think, Cal. No one expects you to be a connoisseur of literature yet.”

He breathed an audible sigh of relief. “I appreciate that, Will. I’m a bit gun-shy after all the razzing I’ve taken from Catman, that calico-cowled nemesis of crime, about my taste in books. That’s why I value the way you’ve taken me under your wing. Metaphorically speaking.”

I caught a twinkle in his eye. Before he met me, he would never have been talking about metaphors. “Don’t mention it, Cal. I’m so used to loaning books to friends and having them return them months later only half read. It’s a pleasure to have a pal who actually reads what I recommend.”

“Oh, and I’m starting to get a lot out of them!” he said eagerly. “I thought I knew all about truth and justice until I read those Plato volumes.”

“I had a feeling you’d like the Greeks,” I said. “They appreciated the heroic.”

“And what playwrights! I had no idea great literature could be so entertaining. I laughed so hard reading Aristophanes’s Frogs that I would have busted a gut, if my internal organs, like my bodily exterior, were not invulnerable. Do you have anything else by him?”

“I wish I did. But that volume includes all his surviving works.”

“Surviving?” he asked. “You mean some of them have been lost to the winds of time?”

“You could put it that way. All the great Greek dramatists—the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and the comedians Aristophanes and Menander—have been shown to have written far more works than still survive. Ditto for Plato, Aristotle, and the other classical philosophers. One of the great calamities of ancient history was the unexplained destruction by fire of the great library of Alexandria during Caesar’s campaign in 48 B.C., which resulted in the eternal loss of innumerable classics of literature and philosophy.”

“Great Amundsen, Will!” he exclaimed, rising from his seat. “I had no idea! What a tragedy! All those lost works must have been magnificent. One thing I’ve noticed is that those ancient authors never seemed to write a bad book.”

“You said it,” I snorted. “Of course, they were fortunate enough to live in an era when economics and art were in harmony, and an author was encouraged to be true to his vision. They didn’t have to contend with a short-sighted commercial publishing ‘industry’ devoted to snuffing the literary soul.”

“Why, Will,” he gasped, “I’ve never heard you sound so bitter! Have you suffered another setback in your own literary career?”

“You could put it that way.” I explained to him how I’d hit a creative wall in the middle of Chapter 38 of my new novel and how what I’d thought would be the consummation of my years of writing looked doomed to end up as just another item in my trunk.

“Now, Will, you shouldn’t give up so quickly,” he said. “Don’t you think your whole perspective on your work will change once you’ve succeeded in getting published?”

“Published!” I snorted. “What good is getting published if it means betraying my own vision to cater to the blind editors of New York? Even the writers who start out great are seduced into prostituting themselves in this modern world. Look at Norman Mailer! Tennessee Williams! Bret Easton Ellis!”

“But Will. I thought you told me that Bret Easton Ellis has always been bad.”

“That’s beside the point,” I muttered.

He sat back down, took a swig of his drink, and looked at me with grave concern. “It sounds to me, pal,” he said, “as though what you need is some inspiration. Nothing lifts me out of the doldrums of self-doubt like remembering the sacrifices of the great heroes of the past. That’s why I keep life-size statues of Hercules, Samson, and Mother Teresa in my Citadel of Contemplation.”

“It’s different with you. You can defeat Cerebriac as he plunders an alien planet in exactly the way a hero of the past did and people will say, ‘What a hero! Splendid Man is the new Robin Hood!’ If I use someone else’s plot they’ll say, ‘What a plagiarist! Will Jones is the new Jerzy Kosinski!’”

“But Will, didn’t you tell me yourself that every writer draws from the classics? That, for example, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is a Sophoclean tragedy in the costume of the Jim Crow South?”

“Words to that effect, anyway,” I grumbled. “But the last thing the world needs is another reworking of Oedipus.”

“Fair enough,” he said, with a shrewd glint in his eye. “But what if you were to draw your inspiration from a classic that no one else living has read? Say, one of the lost works of the Athenian dramatists?”

“Swell. Except where the hell am I going to read plays that have been lost for centuries?”

“Centuries ago, that’s where!” He grinned and slapped my knee. “Didn’t you say they had them all in stock in the library of ancient Alexandria?”

It took me a few seconds, but then I got it. “Of course! Your Splendid Speed can break the time barrier! You can actually go to ancient Alexandria!”

“Oh, I’ve already gone, several times. But I have to confess I haven’t once stopped by the library. I guess I assumed that since I didn’t reside there, I could never be issued a library card.”

“Then, for heaven’s sake, you’ve got to go read those ancient dramas!” I yelled. “And as soon as you come back to the present you’ll have to stop by and tell me what they’re all about.”

“I have a better idea, Will. We can just zip off to 48 B.C. together and you can have a look around for yourself!”

“Me? Go with you?” I gulped. “But wouldn’t I be…I don’t know…”

“Buffeted to death by the temporal winds that rage along the time stream?” he asked.

“Exactly!” I said.

“Oh no, Will. I wouldn’t let that happen to you. I’ll just wrap you in my indestructible cape, as I do with my pal Bobby Anderssen, that albino cub reporter, take you under my arm, and fly you there safe and sound.”

I jumped to my feet. “Then let’s go!”

Bundled securely in Splendid Man’s cape I was unable to hear, see, or smell the passage of eons as we hurtled back through time. It was a lot like a sensory deprivation tank, only different. Suddenly Splendid Man unwrapped the cape from around my head. The sun glinted on the blue Mediterranean below us. On a small island towered a massive stone structure, undoubtedly the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of ancient civilization. And on the coast a great city came into view: Alexandria herself, center of learning of the Hellenistic world!

Despite the awe-inspiring sights, an irrelevant thought crossed my mind as Splendid Man landed in the great agora in the city center, a thought that I nevertheless felt compelled to voice. “Tell me, Cal, is your hair invulnerable too? I’ve noticed that despite the velocities we attain on our flights, it never looks mussed.”

“Why yes, Will, of course it’s invulnerable,” he replied. “But you must understand that not even invulnerable hair will stay in place against the buffeting it withstands at interstellar speeds. That’s why I use a little dab of Brylcream every morning. It even keeps my forelock in place.”

We proceeded through the teeming city. Even as I tried to soak up every sight and sound around me, I couldn’t help looking ahead for evidence of the great library. My heart was pounding in anticipation of the lost literary masterworks that I, Will Jones, would soon find laid before me. And from those masterworks, who knew what novelistic watershed would pour from my newly inflamed soul and what success would follow? I could already picture myself giving notice at Blockbuster!

“I hope we’ve landed at the right time,” I said. “I’d hate to have come here after the library had already burned.”

“Well, we’ll just have to ask one of the friendly locals.”

“Don’t tell me you speak Ancient Greek.”

“With my power of Splendid Recall, I’m able to be fluent in quite a number of languages, Will. Over six thousand on Earth alone, in fact. And, by carefully manipulating the powers of my Splendid Voice, I’ll make sure to provide translations of everything as we go. I know how uncomfortable it feels to stand by while people converse in a language you can’t understand. That happened to me once with the sponge beings of Procyon 3. Boy, is that a tough language to crack!”

“I’ll take your word for it,” I said.

Splendid Man stepped up to a merchant dressed in a toga with a laurel wreath set in his curly blond locks. And sure enough, I heard a simultaneous translation of the conversation as if it were being whispered in my ear. “Excuse me, Citizen,” said Cal, “can you tell two travelers what year this is?”

“What kind of question is that?” responded the merchant. “It’s 48 B.C., of course!”

With a yelp of glee I hurried on, pulling Cal after me.

But as we rounded a corner, the sight of billowing black smoke stopped us in our tracks.

Splendid Man sniffed the air with his Splendid Smell and said, “That’s peculiar, Will. That smells like a gasoline fire to me—and yet gasoline hadn’t yet been refined in this period of history.”

Without another word he caught me under his arm and took to the air. We saw wine-colored flames licking at the marble walls, the broad stairway, and the classical columns of a great building, above the door of which was inscribed, “Alexandria Public Library.” It was too late for even Splendid Man’s powers to make a difference.

Simultaneously, Splendid Man and I spotted a figure wearing a white lab smock and lacking eyebrows, hurrying away with a two-gallon Citgo can clutched in his hand.

“Why, that’s my archfoe, the evil scientist Pox Pascal!” exclaimed Splendid Man. “So he’s responsible for the unexplained destruction of the Library of Alexandria!”

Splendid Man changed direction, but before he could swoop down on the smooth-browed villain, Pascal climbed into a time bubble that he had hidden behind some olive trees and vanished into the time stream. Defeated, we watched the building crumble before our eyes.

“Is there nothing we can do?” I asked.

Splendid Man’s brow was furrowed in thought. “Yes, Will, there is one thing we can do. We can travel a little further back in time and be here waiting for Pascal when he arrives.”

“Great,” I sighed. “And we can go back a little further, can’t we? To give us time to read a few plays?”

“Tragedies, comedies, philosophical dialogues, you name it, pal! And since we’re going back only a short time, we won’t need to take to the air to get there. Borrowing a tip from my friend Quickie, the swiftest man alive, I can vibrate at Splendid Speed and break the time barrier while apparently standing still.”

He took hold of me and vibrated, and I watched the flames die down and the building rise up again before my eyes, as if by a trick of cinematography. Suddenly we were standing before the library in all its splendor. We ascended the stairs expectantly and passed through the mighty doors.

The library was actually only one part of a larger complex called a museum—though “museum” was meant in the ancient sense, denoting an institute of study. There were wings for mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. We passed a botanical garden and a menagerie. The latter reminded me somewhat of Splendid Man’s menagerie in his Citadel of Contemplation, only I didn’t spot any species from other star systems.

Suddenly a sculpture caught my eye. It was of Aphrodite. And brother, anybody who says the ancient Greeks were all gay needs to brush up on his scholarship! I promise you, whoever set his chisel to this honey’s curves wasn’t thinking about Spartan warriors wrestling in olive oil! For a minute I even though of asking if Cal if he knew any Hellenistic dolls he could fix me up with. But then I remembered that long distance relationships hardly ever work out.

Splendid Man, I noticed, had also stopped before another sample of the classical sculpture that decorated the institute. After studying the marble nude of an Olympic athlete, he commented, “The Greeks certainly had a healthy attitude about the body, didn’t they, Will?”

“Great observation, Cal,” I said, and I’ll confess I felt a swell of pride. When the big guy had first asked me to help him become more cultured, I’d had my doubts, but under my guidance he was starting to show sides of himself that I’d never imagined were there.

At last we entered the library itself. We discovered, however, that it wasn’t easy finding the books we were looking for, since the Dewey Decimal System hadn’t been invented yet. Failing even to find an author and title catalogue, we sought out the librarian. An elderly woman in a frumpy toga, her hair drawn back into a bun, sat at the Returned Scrolls counter.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” whispered Splendid Man, once again translating for me as he went. “We’re looking for the later works of the great Athenian dramatists and philosophers of the Age of Pericles.”

“Right this way, please,” she said. She led us down shelves of scrolls arranged into the popular Greek genres: Epics, Odes, Gnomic Elegies, Dithyrambs. She patted a shelf and said, “The Drama section is here. You’ll find Philosophy around the corner, next to Sports Stories.”

We plunged into the scrolls. Going alphabetically, we came first upon Aeschylus. Splendid Man translated the titles from the Greek as he read. “Agamemnon…The Eumenides…. Oh, here’s one that wasn’t in the Great Books, Will. It seems to be a sequel to his Prometheus Bound.”

“You mean…it’s the legendary, lost Prometheus Unbound?”

“Actually, this one’s called Prometheus and the Chamber of Secrets.”

“Wha—?” I exclaimed. “Can you scan it and see what it’s about?”

“I’ll do better than that, Will. I’ll read the whole thing at Splendid Speed and condense it for you.” He flipped through the scroll at a blur and said, “What a clever idea!”

“So what is it?”

“In this one, our plucky Titan hero has to use the magic fire he stole from Zeus to fight an evil wizard!”

“No! I don’t believe it!”

“He’s left the ending open too, so he can continue the series. I wonder if the next one is here?”

“My God,” I said. “That’s…that’s terrible!”

“Well, I enjoyed it,” Splendid Man said. “It’s true that it rambles a lot more than his earlier works, but the characters are certainly endearing.”

“Forget it,” I muttered. “Read something else.”

“Here’s Aristophanes. Goodness, that fellow wrote a lot, didn’t he?”

“Do you see any lost works?”

“I sure do pal,” he said, already speed-reading a scroll. “Wow! I can see you doing something really great with this plot!”

“What is it?”

“It’s called Fast Times at Plato’s Academy.”

“Oh no!”

“Oh yes! And there’s a hilarious scene where those rascally students wreck Eupolos of Thessaly’s chariot and blame his Olympic opponents!”

“Oh, Lord,” I said.

“What’s wrong, Will? I thought you’d be more excited.”

“Let’s try again,” I said. “I know Euripides won’t let us down.”

Splendid Man looked and said, “Here’s one. It’s called The Phallus Monologues.”

“Gasp!” I gasped.

As he finished zipping through the scroll, Cal’s cheeks reddened in a blush. “This one’s rather daring,” he said. “It’s a series of men talking about their…er…manhoods.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “It ends with a loud dramatization of a orgasm.”

“By the entire Greek chorus, yes. But how did you know?”

“Move along,” I said. “Move along.”

The rest were no different: Menander’s My Big Fat Hellenistic Wedding and Sophocles’s Oedipus III: Revenge of the Sphinx. I crumpled against the shelves in despair. “I can’t believe it,” I moaned. “How could they do it? How could they throw it all away for a quick buck?”

“Will, didn’t you tell me once that all the basic plots of Western literature are contained within the works of the Greek dramatists?” asked Cal. “Couldn’t they just have burned themselves out?”

I glared at him.

“Well, I’m sorry you didn’t find anything to inspire you,” he said. “Maybe we should move to the Philosophy section. Didn’t you tell me there’s always consolation in classical philosophy?”

That I had, and as we rounded Sports Stories and came upon shelves filled to bursting with copious scrolls, I felt my spirits rise a little. For I, Will Jones, was about to become the first modern man—or at least the first modern, non-Splendid-Powered man—to discover the lost works of the men who had forged the consciousness of the West.

“Here’s something by Aristotle I don’t recognize,” he said, unrolling a long scroll.

“Aristotle,” I said in hushed tones. “The greatest mind of the ancient world.”

“Yes. It’s called The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Sophists.”

I began to see spots before my eyes.

“Oh, and here’s an interesting one, Will. It’s by a fellow named Heraclitus and it’s called The Same River Never Runs through It. He seems to be trying to explain metaphysics through fly-fishing.”

An anguished groan escaped my lips. “Put it down! I don’t want to know any more!”

“But here’s the Plato section!”

“No, Cal! Don’t look at it!”

“But you love Plato, Will. And here’s one I’ve never heard of before. Don’t you want to know what it’s called?”

I couldn’t help myself. After all, it was Plato, the fountainhead of western thought. “Okay,” I said. “Shoot.”

“Attaboy, Will,” he said. “It’s called Men Are from Athens, Boys Are from Sparta. Would you like to know what it’s about?”

“No!” I screamed. “Let’s just get out of here!”

As I dragged him toward the exit, Splendid Man said, “Aren’t you being a little harsh, Will? Some of those philosophy tips were awfully useful. And those plays were sure entertaining.”

“Catman was right,” I said. “You’ve still got a lot to learn about literature, Splendid Man.”

“But I don’t understand, Will. What exactly is it that distinguishes high art from hack work?”

“It’s not something I can put into words, Cal. Ernest Hemingway expressed it best. He said that you just have to have a built-in shit detector.”

“Will!” exclaimed Cal, aghast. “There are children here!”

He hurried me outside. As we stood on the steps, his splendid nose sniffed the air. “I smell gasoline again,” he said.

“Pascal must have arrived via his time bubble,” I said.

Before the words were out of my mouth, tongues of flame were darting around us. Splendid Man reacted instantly, using his Splendid Suction to rob the flames of oxygen and snuff them. I saw spots before my eyes again, although for very different reasons this time, but then he exhaled and I could breathe again.

Pascal appeared from around the corner of the museum. “Splendid Man!” he gasped. “How ironic that we should meet thousands of years in our past for our final showdown!”

“Fiend!” snarled Splendid Man. “How could you try to deprive the world of one of its great treasure troves of literature?”

“The world will be better off!” hissed Pascal. “If not for me, every classical scholar on earth would be crushed by disillusionment at the spectacle of the world’s greatest writers disgracing themselves! Without me, what would become of the world’s intelligentsia?” With that, he drew a glowing silver rock from under his shirt, tossed it at Splendid Man’s feet, and ran for his time bubble.

I reacted instantly as Splendid Man crumpled groaning to his knees beside me. I hurled the glowing Strontiumite at Pascal. My years as a Little League pitcher paid off, because I struck him smack on the back of his head.

“Good toss, Will!” said Splendid Man as he apprehended Pascal and pushed him into his time bubble. “This will teach you, Pascal, that no matter how well-educated we may be, none of us has the right to decide which books will or will not be read by succeeding generations! That’s the democratic way!”

With one hand, Splendid Man hurled the time bubble into space, explaining, “I’m sending Pascal on a little trip through time and space. Thanks to my Splendid Aim, he’ll materialize back in our own time, orbiting the moon. Later I’ll retrieve him and return him to the maximum-security penitentiary where he belongs.”

As he vanished into the sky, we heard Pascal calling, “We’ll meet again, Splendid Man, for our final showdown!”

Splendid Man turned to me and said, “Although he is a twisted, diabolical genius, Pascal does have a love for the finer things in life. This love has made him a hero on the argon-free planet Poxor where, ironically, I am looked upon as a villain.”

Suddenly the elderly librarian rushed down the stairs, waving a slip of parchment in her hand. “I saw what you did for us, young man!” she said to Cal. “And as a token of appreciation, I’d like to present you with this honorary library card to our wonderful library, the center of learning in the Hellenistic world!”

Splendid Man’s face lit up and he said, “I’m truly honored, ma’am. I’ll give this card a place of honor beside my many trophies of past adventures in my 21st Century Citadel of Contemplation.”

We waved goodbye and Splendid Man flew us to a nearby hilltop for one last look at this glorious city. As we gazed in awe at this monument of civilization, Splendid Man put his arm around me. Suddenly, by an ironic twist of fate, a lightning bolt cleaved the clear blue sky and struck the museum. The great building burst into flames.

Splendid Man twitched beside me, but he made no effort to fly down and combat the blaze.

“Splendid Man!” I cried. “Why don’t you do something?”

“Because it was meant to be, Will,” he said. “As I explained before, not even a Splendid Man can alter the course of history.”

“How tragic,” I said. But I have to confess that I was secretly thinking it was probably just as well. I never would have guessed it could happen, and I certainly wasn’t going to mention it to my heroic pal, but on this one I actually found myself agreeing with the evil Pox Pascal.

Splendid Man looked awfully glum as he wrapped me in his cape for our return to the present. “I hope you’re not too disappointed that this trip to the past amounted to nothing, pal,” he said.

“Well,” I said, “I’ll admit that I was at first. But I hope you know that I'm not in this friendship in the hopes of benefiting from your Splendid Powers. It was worth it just to have this time together, even if I am still as stuck as ever on Chapter 38 of my novel.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that, Will. And I want you to know that, even though my Splendid Powers turned out to be of no use to you, your own splendid knowledge of history and culture was a huge boon to me.”

I didn’t get the chance to thank him for that, because just then his cape closed over my face and we hurtled into the time stream.

When he uncovered my eyes I found us high in the air over San Francisco Bay. Our leisurely flight took us over Telegraph Hill. I would never have thought that it could happen in real life, but as we flew by Coit Tower, a little girl on the top pointed at us and said, “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a U.F.O.!”

“No!” her mother cried. “It’s a weather balloon!”

“No, it’s Splendid Man!” said a man in a business suit. “But who the heck is that with him?”

Splendid Man and I smiled at each other knowingly.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Episode Two. The Girl in the Canned City

The doorbell startled me. I’d been sitting in my room catching up on my self-pity and the last thing I’d expected was a visitor. I threw open my door and blinked.

“Well,” I said. “I sure didn’t figure to find you in my hall. Especially in that get-up.” I was referring to the conservative blue business suit that Cal is so often shown wearing in the comic books but which I’d never seen on him in person. “Come in, come in.”

“Long time no see, Will,” he said, brushing past me into my apartment. Even in the dull clothes I had to admit he was a splendid specimen of manhood.

“Would you like a drink?” I asked.

“What have you got?”

“Only bourbon and soda, I’m afraid. I hope you like highballs.”

“I love highballs,” he said.

“Good. Have a seat and I’ll be right with you.”

“No. Let me get them, Will.”

One moment, he was standing there empty-handed. The next, two highballs seemingly materialized in his hands. He’d mixed the drinks at such blurring speed that he didn’t appear to have budged. The only evidence of his motion was the slight breeze it had stirred up. As I accepted one of the drinks, I wondered how he got liquid to flow at the speed of light.

“So, what brings you by, Cal?” I said as we sat down.

He took a sip of his drink and said, “You’d better call me Ken as long as I’m dressed like this, Will. You never know, one of my enemies, like Pox Pascal or the Hideous Thing from 1,000,000 A.D., may have seen us together and bugged your apartment. Certainly ‘Cal’ is safer than my full Strontiumese name Calv’In, but even so, if they overheard you they might tumble to my secret identity.”

“Ken. I just can’t get used to calling you that.” I’d been stumbling over the name since the night we’d gone out for pizza and he’d divulged his secret identity. I was about to inquire again as to the nature of his visit but I stopped myself. I realized that with his power of Splendid Recall my question would come back to him soon and he’d answer me when he was good and ready.
Sure enough, a moment later he said, “I just thought I’d drop in, Will. You haven’t summoned me with your SOS Comb for such a long time that I was getting worried about you.”

“Couldn’t you have just checked up on me with your Splendid Vision?”

“I prefer to do that only in emergencies, Will. Otherwise, it would be a breach of privacy. Now tell me, why have you been making yourself so scarce lately?”

“It’s nothing,” I said, and before I knew what I was doing I was pulling a pack of cigarettes out of my pocket. I was embarrassed that I’d started smoking again, but you know how it is when you’re in a funk. “I’ve just been working through some personal issues and I didn’t want to burden you with them.”

“Let me have one of those,” Splendid Man said.

It took me a second, but then I realized he meant the cigarettes. “Don’t tell me you smoke,” I said.

“Although I can live interminably without food and drink,” he explained, “I find I need a little tobacco now and then. It helps me think.” He took a cigarette and set it between his lips. I offered him my lighter, but he waved it away and lit the cigarette with the heat setting of his Splendid Vision.

“I hope I’m not giving you my bad habits,” I said.

“Don’t be silly, Will. Friends always pick up one another’s habits and attributes.”

“Depends on how you look at it, Ken. Have I started flying at interstellar speed, stopping bullets with my indestructible chest, or battling such menaces as the cybernetic space villain Cerebriac?”

“No,” Splendid Man said. “But you certainly are picking up my speech-patterns.”

“Heaven forbid,” I said.

“Now what’s this tomfoolery about not burdening me with your problems?” he said, blowing a perfect smoke ring that spiraled toward the ceiling like a celestial body. “You and Bobby Anderssen are my best pals. I’m only delighted to help you with your problems, like the time Bobby turned into a giant abalone-man and I helped him by telepathically summoning my old mermaid sweetheart Pura Poseidonis and her friends in Lemuria to find the cause of his bizarre transformation.”

“Yeah, I know, Ken. But you’ve got more important things to do than play psychologist to me.”

“What’s the problem, Will? I insist.”

I shrugged and looked at my feet. “I’ve just been feeling lonely of late.”

“Great Amundsen, Will! What do you expect? You never get out of the house, except to go to work. And you’re never going to meet people as a security guard at a self-storage facility. All you do in your time off is read and write. Don’t get me wrong. I think the literary life is very honorable. You know that. You know how much I enjoy our literary talks. But there’s more to life than books and comics. You’ve got to get out more. Meet more people. Try different activities.”

“I know that, Ken. Don’t you think I know that? But Christ, sometimes you get into such a deep rut that it feels like you’ll never climb out again.”


“Yes, Ken?”

“Please don’t take the name of the Lord in vain.”

“Sure. Sorry about that.”

“Even though He went by a different name on my native planet Strontium, where a great flood destroyed all life except for me and Stronto the Splendid Dog whom my father Marl’In sent in a tiny space-ark to Earth where we gained Splendid Powers under Earth’s lesser gravity and argon-tinged atmosphere, there is still only one true God.”

“Of course, Ken. By the way, what was His name in Strontiumese again?”



Cal suddenly stood up and in the twinkling of an eye stripped off his outer garments and revealed himself in his gleaming gold tights and red cape. He super-compressed his blue suit into the pouch in his cape and said, “Put out your cigarette, Will. We’re going on a little trip.”

“Where to?” I asked.

“First to my Citadel,” he said. “Then you’ll see. Now open a window and let’s get going.”

“Why don’t we just stay here? Picnic’s on TV tonight. It’s one of my favorite movies.”

“Great Amundsen! You really are in bad shape.”

That got to me. It’s one thing to know yourself that your life is a mess, but when somebody you respect agrees with you, then you really feel lousy. I crushed my butt, drew back the curtains, and opened the window wide.

Cal had removed his cape. He wrapped me in it from head to toe and put an arm around me to lift me into the air.

“Wait!” I said. “Won’t I need a space suit, lest the vacuum of outer space cause my non-invulnerable body to hyperinflate?”

“You see?” he said. “You are beginning to talk like me.”

“Okay,” I said. “Won’t I blow the fuck up in space?”

“Only if we dawdle, Will,” he said. And a moment later I felt us take to the air.

For a couple of seconds I heard an incredibly loud whoosh, then nothing. With a thrill I realized that we had left Earth’s atmosphere behind and were hurtling through airless space! I started to panic when I realized I couldn’t breathe, then immediately felt stupid. Splendid Man could fly from the Richmond district in San Francisco to the moon in far less time than it would take me to suffocate.

Then I was standing on the surface of the moon, feeling so light that I was surprised I didn’t float off into space. Even though I was still wrapped up in the cape and couldn’t see anything, I could clearly visualize the scene around me from a previous trip, when Splendid Man had provided me with one of those goldfish-bowl space helmets. In my mind’s eye I could see the vivid chiaroscuro of the moon’s surface, imagine the glorious orb of the Earth hanging in the sky. And if sound could carry in a vacuum, I’d have heard the click when Splendid Man unlocked the door to his Citadel of Contemplation with the giant key he’d disguised as an American flag. Then we were wafting down into the bowels of the unearthly structure.

Splendid Man’s citadel is actually a generation starship that Strontium had launched decades before its destruction. Something had gone horribly wrong (which, if science fiction stories are any guide, seems to be pretty standard for generation starships), and all hands had perished except for Cal’s cousin Kar’En. Cal had discovered the ship just in time to rescue her before her air gave out. She, of course, went on to become Splendid Girl, and he buried the gargantuan ship on the moon, gradually refitting it into his home away from home.

Even though he’d brought me here a few times before, I was still flabbergasted by all the trophies from different worlds, his intergalactic menagerie, and his scientific gadgetry. I was no less flabbergasted by his meticulous housekeeping and superb taste in interior decoration. Perhaps, I thought, these were parts of the cultural legacy of Strontium, or perhaps they were simply two more of his seemingly limitless Splendid Powers.

I followed him through several rooms, admiring the life-size statues of Catman and Sparrow, both in costume and in their identities as Wyatt Brewster and his ward, Greg Dickson, his library, which includes for the most part titles I’ve recommended, and finally the room containing Strontor, the City in a Can. It became clear what Cal had in mind when he brought out a couple of parachutes. I, Will Jones, was about to visit the sole surviving city of Splendid Man’s native world, which the cybernetic space criminal Cerebriac had shrunk and imprisoned in a can.

“Wow,” I said. “I sure feel honored.”

He smiled and instructed me to place on my head a metal cap connected by wires to a bizarre apparatus on the wall.

“This machine,” he explained, throwing a switch, “will enable you to speak in fluent Strontiumese in moments.”

“You’re putting me on,” I said, and realized as soon as the words had left my mouth that I’d spoken in a strange, alien tongue.

“You can take it off now,” he said, also speaking in Strontiumese, which I understood perfectly.

“Amazing,” I said. “I can’t believe it.”

“It’s one thing to understand Strontiumese,” he said, “but quite another to speak it. You won’t have any problems though because, being fluent in Spanish, it’s a cinch for you to roll your R’s. Bobby has a heck of a time.”

The next part of the operation startled me. Splendid Man turned on the shrinking ray and in instants we dwindled to the size of gnats—clothes, parachutes, and all. Then he put his arms around my shoulder and up and away we went toward the now-distant top of the can. “As you well know,” he explained on the way, “I lose all my Splendid Powers in Strontor, the City in a Can, and so I, too, have to parachute down.”

“Of course,” I said. “And I’ll have to be fitted with special shoes when we get there in order to withstand the terrible gravitational pull of Strontor.”

“Why Will, where did you learn that? I don’t remember telling you about it.”

“I read about in the comics, Cal. Bobby always needs special shoes when you bring him to Strontor.”

“Of course, Will. I’d forgotten you were such a big fan of AC/DC Comics.”

We’d finally gotten to the top of the can and we approached one of the many air holes. I saw that the hole was covered with what looked like grating to my tiny eyes, but which I realized must be the filter that removes the trace argon from Earth’s atmosphere. “Say, Cal,” I asked, “what effects can I expect from breathing argon-free air? Oddly, that never seems to be addressed in the comics.”

“Just a slight tightening of the scrotum, Will. Nothing to worry about.”

“Okay,” I said, “not so odd.”

Splendid Man waved me back and, kneeling down, peered over the edge of the air hole. “We’re in luck,” he said. “Strontor’s artificial sun isn’t in our path of descent.”

“That’s nice,” I said.

He motioned me forward. “Don’t look down,” he cautioned. “In our present size the drop is awesome. Just jump in, count to ten, and open your chute.”

I followed directions, not daring to look down until my chute had ballooned about me and I was gently wafting down. But even then it was quite a shock. We were much higher over the city below than any jet plane ever gets above the surface of the earth. Relatively speaking, that is.
Cal, being more experienced at this sort of thing than I, had timed the opening of his chute so that we descended side by side.

“Do you like it?” he asked.

“It’s fantastic!” I exclaimed. We were close enough to the city now that it began to take on distinctive contours. It was mind-boggling to find myself in such an exotic setting when from the outside it looked like a restaurant-size can of pork and beans. “Strontor looks a lot like San Francisco,” I said. “Only different.”

“I’m glad you appreciate things like that, Will,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I value your friendship.”

That reminded me. “Hey, Cal,” I said, “let me ask you a question.”

“Sure, Will.”

“You remember when I told you my middle name?”

“Why, of course I do, Will. It was the same night I divulged my secret
identity to you.”

“Exactly. It was no coincidence that that’s when you really decided you
could trust me as a friend, was it?”

“Well, no, I have to confess that it wasn’t. As you must know from the comics, an odd quirk of fate has thrown me over and over again into intimate contact with people bearing double P’s in their names. Pepper Pine, Patti Pert, Pura Poseidonis, and Pox Pascal, to name but a few. Of course, I already valued our literary discussions, but that alone isn’t enough to form a basis for a genuine friendship. I’ll admit that the discovery that you had two P’s in your middle name made me feel instantly closer to you than I would have to, say, Michael Chabon or even Paul Auster.”

Through the rest of our descent, I reflected on how glad I was that, despite my father’s desire to call me William James Jones, thus naming me after a great philosopher and a fine novelist at once, my mother had stuck to her guns and insisted on Skipper.

As soon as we touched ground, a delegation of Strontorians gathered around us. A maiden fell to her knees and replaced my boots with special gravity shoes. She had stooped so quickly that I hadn’t gotten a look at her face, but something about her seemed strangely familiar.

“People of Strontor,” said Splendid Man to the crowd, “this is my friend Will Jones, from San Francisco.”

An elderly man in a green headband stepped forward and said, “Yes, we have monitored San Francisco on our screens. It looks a lot like Strontor, only different. And a lot bigger.”

After him, a young man in a red headband who looked remarkably like Splendid Man addressed me, “Our screens reveal that you’re a writer, Will.”

“Well,” I said uncomfortably, “I do like to write.”

Just then the maiden finished buckling the shoes to my feet and stood before me. I nearly choked when I saw her. “Ellen!” I gasped. “What are you doing in Strontor, the City in a Can?”

She looked mystified. Cal chuckled. Then I remembered. Through another of fate’s odd quirks, many Strontorians are the exact physical doubles of people on Earth. The comic books mentioned doubles of Pepper Pine, Bobby Anderssen, Patti Pert, and Mugsy Ricketts, so it should have been no surprise to find myself face to face with a double of Ellen, my ex-wife. Except that I’d had no idea there were Jews on Strontium.

Cal was looking at me with a peculiar glint in his eyes. He said hastily, “Will, I have to pay a visit to some scientist friends of mine who are working on a ray to restore Strontor to its original size. I’ll leave you in the capable hands of Jen’Ee here.”

“Well…er…I…” I began, but before I could complete my protest he had waved and turned his back and left me alone with Jen’Ee.

I had thought that in the two years since my wife had left me I had gotten over her. But now, in the presence of her Strontorian double, I began to have my doubts. I suddenly understood how Monroe Stahr must have felt in The Last Tycoon. It made me wonder if Splendid Man had ever brought Scott Fitzgerald to Strontor. But it seemed unlikely, since Fitzgerald didn’t have any P’s in his name.

“Would you like me to take you on a tour of our canned city?” Jen’Ee asked.

“That would be nice, El…er…Jen’Ee,” I said.

She showed me the great statue of Splendid Man in Strontor Square, the monitor rooms, and the laboratories filled with super-scientific Strontorian inventions. “This is the training ground for the Splendid Man Calamity Unit,” she said at one point, “those miniature marvels who have so often in the past left Strontor to gain splendid powers under Earth’s argon-tinged atmosphere and lesser gravity and fly to the aid of their hero, the Man of Splendor.”

“Yes,” I said, “like the time Splendid Man was turned into a woodpecker by Aeaea, the evil sorceress from ancient times, and the Calamity Unit had to trick her into reversing the spell.”

“Very good,” Jen’Ee said. “Did Splendid Man tell you about that case?”

“Uh…sure,” I said. Actually, I’d read about it, but I don’t like to admit on a first date that I read comic books.

Despite the special gravity shoes, I found my feet hurting by the time we had walked through the whole downtown. Not to mention the rather uncomfortable tightening of the scrotum that I was experiencing. I spotted a bar and suggested we go in for a drink.

“I’d love to,” she said.

We sat by the window and watched Strontor’s artificial sun sink behind the futuristic domes and spires of the city. I wondered where it went. I beckoned to the waitress, who looked amazingly like my landlady, and Jen’Ee ordered the drinks, since I was unfamiliar with Strontiumese mixology.

While we waited for our drinks, Jen’Ee asked, “Why do you keep staring at me like that?”

“You remind me of someone I once knew.”

“Oh. Was it someone you liked?”

“You could say that.”

“Do you still see her?”

“No. But I feel like I’m seeing her right now.”

She blushed. And then our drinks arrived. There were two tall glasses of frothing green liquid with golden globules floating within.

“What do you think?” she asked, as I sipped mine tentatively.

“Interesting,” I said. “It tastes a lot like Tang.”

“What is that?”

“An advanced beverage developed by Earth’s scientists for the use of astronauts. Maybe someday, once Calv’In and his scientific friends perfect their enlarging ray, you can come visit me on Earth and try some.”

She averted her eyes and stammered, “I…I’d love to. But I’m afraid I can never leave Strontor, the City in a Can. It’s my home.”

What a contrast, I thought, to my ex-wife Ellen, whose restlessness had driven her from the canned city of our life into the bigger world beyond, in search of herself.

“But maybe you could live in Strontor for a while,” she said. “Being bilingual, I’m sure you could find a job.”

”It’s tempting,” I said. “As stimulating as I find San Francisco, I’ve often thought I’d be happier living someplace smaller.” I paused and added, “I trust that if I live here, I’ll be able to keep seeing you.”

“Of course,” she said softly.

“Do you think I could find a writing-related job?”

“I don’t think so,” she said. “The advancement of science on Strontor has rendered art and literature obsolete.”

“That’s discouraging. I never even learned DOS.”

“I’m sure we can find some line of work for you, Will.”

“Do you need salesmen on Strontor?” I asked. “I’ve held plenty of sales jobs. Temporarily, of course, until my writing takes off.”

“Why, that’s perfect! As long as you don’t mind wearing a white headband.”

“Why a white headband?” I asked.

“Just as salesmen on earth were once distinguished by their white shoes,” she explained, “so are Strontorian salesmen known by their white headbands.”

“Oh,” I said.

She must have mistaken my bafflement for rejection of her idea, because she suddenly grew very thoughtful. Then her face brightened and she said, “Will! Don’t you speak Spanish?”

“Si,” I said.

“Why that’s marvelous, Will! Strontorians are crazy to learn Spanish! You could get a job teaching it!”

“That’s great,” I said. “But why the fascination with Spanish?”

“Because we in Strontor worship the great comedian Cantinflas,” she cried, “and we want to be able to enjoy all the cinematic masterpieces he made in Mexico!”

“Oh, well,” I said. “Better him than Jerry Lewis.”

“Who?” she asked.

“Skip it,” I said.

We left the bar and strolled through the twilit streets of Strontor. I saw dead-ringers for Mickey Mantle, Floyd the barber and, to my horror, Ann Coulter. I took Jen’Ee’s hand and she didn’t snatch it away. She offered to show me more of Strontor’s technological miracles. When I glanced at my watch I saw that it was 8:30. I asked if I could see the monitor rooms again.
Three hoary-bearded scientists in gray headbands were tending the monitor screens.

“What would you like to monitor, Mr. Jones?” asked one. “The Great Pyramids of Egypt?”

“Or would you rather see the Marianas Trench, the deepest point in all the world’s oceans?” chimed another.

The third smiled kindly and said, “Or better yet, perhaps you’d like to see the famous frozen leopard carcass high on the snowy peak of Mount Kilimanjaro.”

“Scratch that last suggestion,” the first one said. “Have you forgotten that global warming caused the leopard to thaw and decompose?”

“Actually,” I said, “I was wondering if you could tap into the satellite transmissions of American Movie Classics.”

Their hands flew to the dials, the screen flickered with wavy lines, and then Picnic came on the air.

We’d arrived just in time for my favorite scene. Everyone was at the Neewollah Ball, and Kim Novak and William Holden were about to begin their dance on the pier. As usual, I was completely enraptured by what I consider to be the most sensuous scene in the history of cinema. But as soon as it was over I caught myself. What would Splendid Man think of me, spending my first evening in Strontor, the City in a Can, glued to the TV? Or monitor screen, as the case may be. How could I ignore and flesh-and-blood woman beside me in favor of a televised image, even if it was Kim Novak?

I turned to her and found her gazing at me with big limpid eyes.

“Do you know of a place where we can go dancing?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I know a nightclub where the patrons dance the Sango, a provocative dance from the southern hemisphere of our native plant Strontium.”

“Lead the way,” I said.

Hand in hand, we left the monitor rooms. As we turned onto a main street we saw Splendid Man emerge from a building, looking dejected.

“Cal! We’re over here!” I called.

“We’re going to a nightclub,” said Jen’Ee. “Would you care to join us?”

“Oh, I should be getting back to Earth,” he sighed.

“What’s the matter, pal? Did something go wrong with the enlarging experiments?” I asked.

“We failed again,” he said. “We succeeded in enlarging a test group of Strontiumese rainbow mice, but after twenty minutes they reverted to savagery. I hate to think what would happen if we trained it on Strontorian humans.”

He looked so depressed that I hated the thought of sending him home alone. But I had big plans for the night ahead, and for tomorrow…who knows? Maybe I’d go to the Strontorian equivalent of Berlitz and ask for a job.

“Why don’t you go ahead, pal,” I said, giving Jen’Ee’s hand a squeeze. “I think I’ll stick around here…a while.”

Splendid Man looked quickly from me to Jen’Ee, and if he had looked bad before, it was only a moon-cast shadow to the grief that now clouded his features. He drew me aside.

“It breaks my heart to tell you this, Will. I’m happy you found a girl you like well enough to want to stay with. But there’s a danger in staying in Strontor. If you stay too long, the effects of the shrinking ray will become permanent and you’ll be unable to return to your original size.”

“How long do I have?” I asked.

“Ten minutes at the outside,” he said. “Make it five. It’ll take us that long to get to the airbase where our exit craft is waiting.”

“Hey wait a minute,” I said. “You and Bobby have stayed here for weeks on end and he was always able to go back to his original size.”

“That’s true, Will. But during our experiments on the rainbow mice a ray escaped from the laboratory which mysteriously altered the atmosphere of Strontor, reducing the amount of time you can safely spend here. You have scarcely five minutes to decide whether you want to return to the outside world or stay here forever with this woman who has won your heart.”

I spun around to face Jen’Ee. She must have overheard us, because tears filled her eyes.

“Nuts,” I said.

“Will…choke…you must go,” she said. “Your place is out there, in the world of literature and culture and human passions. Your place is in the glamorous world of book publishing, which we have monitored for years on our screens.”

I knew she was right. Where was there room for a writer here, in the alien city of Strontor, where the advancement of science had rendered art and literature obsolete? There was no point in fooling myself. I could never be happy as a Spanish teacher. Not even a super-scientific one. Just the thought of it made my scrotum tighten even more.

I nodded in resignation. We hugged in farewell. Then Cal put his hand on my shoulder to signal that we must go.

“Go, Will,” said Jen’Ee through her sobs. “Go and make Earth a better place to live. Visit me again if ever you can. I’ll never forget you, Will.”

“Be sure you don’t, kid,” I said, and turned away.

As the anti-gravity craft raised us toward the top of the can, I brooded on the unwelcome lesson I had learned tonight: Nothing, not the promise of love, not even the futuristic civilization of Strontor, the City in a Can, could tempt a writer to turn his back on his art.

Splendid Man interrupted my reverie. “You know, Will, it’s really remarkable. This young lady Jen’Ee has an ‘en’ in her name, just as did not only your ex-wife Ellen, but your old girlfriend Maureen and your high-school sweetheart Henrietta. What an odd quirk of fate!”

“Yes,” I sighed. “Isn’t fate quirky?”

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