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.”
“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.”
“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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