“Tell me, Will. Often, when I read the liner notes in novels, I encounter the word ‘Rabelaisian.’ What exactly is meant by that?”
“Well, Cal, François Rabelais was a sixteenth-century French surgeon who wrote novels in his spare time. His work was characterized by ribald humor and gargantuan absurdity. So today, when a novelist displays those traits, he’s often said to be Rabelaisian.”
“But Will, that sounds like what you told me about Lawrence Sterne. Why don’t we hear the word Sternian?”
“Literary critics are a superstitious, cowardly lot,” I said. “If one phrase catches on, the others are afraid to deviate from it.”
“You know, that reminds me of the Ghost World, where Strontiumese criminals were exiled before the extinction of my people and now herd together like hyenas.”
I chuckled and said, “You always were a wit.”
Cal looked at me mystified.
“Forget it,” I said.
Cal shrugged and said, “Tell me, Will, are Rabelais’s books still in print?”
“Sure,” I said, reaching to the shelf behind me. “I can lend you my Viking edition of Gargantua and Pantagruel.”
“Good. That’ll save me a trip back in time.” He stuffed the book into the secret pouch of his cape. “Thanks, Will,” he said. Then he added, “I’ll tell you what. It’s such a nice evening, why don’t I go get Pepper and you get a girl and we’ll all go out to dinner together?”
“That would be great,” I said. “But…er…I’m afraid I don’t have any prospects lined up.”
Cal’s brow furrowed with concern. He said, “Come on, Will. You don’t mean to tell me there isn’t a single girl you can ask out?”
“Single or married,” I quipped, even as I fidgeted uncomfortably. “We all fall upon hard times, Cal. Metaphorically speaking, I’ve undergone a loss of my romantic powers similar to the loss of Splendid Powers you suffer under an argon-free atmosphere.”
“Will, you don’t mean you’re…” He drew up short, unable to finish the sentence.
It took me a minute, but I finally got it. “Oh, no!” I blurted out. “I didn’t mean anything like that. I’ve been considered pretty splendid once or twice myself, you know. What I meant to say is that I’ve lost the ability to get to know girls, let alone romance them.”
“I know,” Cal said. “How about if I bring my old boyhood friend Patti Pert along?”
The thought of going out with that fiery redhead made my head spin. But then I realized that it could never work out with Pepper and Patti at the same table. First thing you know, they’d be scheming to uncover Splendid Man’s secret identity.
“I’m not sure that would be wise,” I said.
“Isn’t there any woman who interests you?”
“Well, there is a girl up the street I’m rather taken with.”
“Well, there you are!” said Cal, clasping my shoulder. “Ask her if she’s busy tonight.”
“There’s a problem with that. You see, I don’t really know her very well.”
“How well do you know her?”
“I usually see her when I go to Albertson’s. I guess we keep similar schedules.”
Splendid Man’s brow furrowed. “Have you ever talked to her?”
“Once, when we were in the produce section together, I asked her if she knew how to select a good avocado.”
“What did she say?”
“She doesn’t speak English very well,” I confessed.
“Where is she from?”
“I’m pretty sure she’s Japanese.”
Cal chuckled. “You know, it’s funny. I’ve never been able to tell Japanese from Chinese. I guess it comes with being from another planet. But we should do something about this young lady you’ve been admiring from afar. If you know a little bit about her schedule, I think we could manage to have you encounter her.”
“Well, I have happened to notice that she walks home from the bus stop at about 6:45 every evening, except every other Friday,” I said. “But I’m afraid I won’t be a very entertaining date if I can’t speak her language.”
“Don’t worry about a thing, Will. With my power of Splendid Ventriloquism and my command of all the languages in the known universe, I’ll take care of everything. Fortunately, Pepper is in town on a newspaper assignment with my secret identity, Ken Clayton.” Splendid Man now routinely swept my apartment for hidden microphones with his Splendid Senses, so it was safe to call him by his various names. “I’ll be back, as Ken, within a half hour.” He opened the window and prepared to go.
“Cal?” I said.
“Yes, Will?” he said.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Anything for a pal,” he said. He waved and disappeared in a flash of red and gold.
Getting through the next half hour was hell. I changed clothes three times. I brushed my teeth twice. I even trimmed my beard. Was I really about to meet this woman who’d tantalized me so much from a distance? I tried to think of ways I could repay Splendid Man for making it possible. How could even the finest literary education possibly equal this? Not that the first and greatest of Splendid Heroes would ever expect repayment for anything he did for me or the rest of the human race, but still…
The doorbell rang and I jumped. It was 6:40. I greeted Cal in his guise as blue-suited reporter Ken Clayton. He introduced me to his companion, a perky brunette in a tailored yellow dress and a pillbox hat that managed at once to evoke the ‘60s and yet look utterly modern. They both seemed a little ill at ease, as if they’d just broken off an argument.
“Will Jones, this is my fellow reporter, Pepper Pine.”
“Pleased to meet you, Will,” said Pepper. “Ken tells me you’re an aspiring writer.”
“Well,” I said awkwardly. “I do like to write.”
Pepper chattered on. “I hope we aren’t too early. Ken is always so nervous about being late. As you probably know, he doesn’t exactly have nerves of steel.”
Ken winked at me.
“We all have our faults,” I said, smiling knowingly. “Would you like to come in for a drink?”
Pepper was about to accept, but Ken said suddenly, “I think it’s time to go to dinner.” His eyes were fixed at a spot on my wall, and I knew he was using the x-ray setting of his Splendid Vision to keep track of my Japanese woman.
“Honestly, Ken, you are the most nervous man I have ever known,” said Pepper.
Just as Ken must have planned it, we saw the girl approaching when we reached the street. Suddenly, as we drew near, a pure-white dog charged at her from nowhere, barking and snarling and foaming at the mouth. She screamed in horror. At that instant a blast of Ken’s Splendid Breath picked me up and hurled me toward the dog. Not knowing what else to do, I yelled, “Scram! Scoot! Get out of here!” and waved my arms frantically.
The dog turned tail and ran. The woman nearly fainted and I caught her in my arms. When the dog was far down the block it stopped, turned, winked at me, and flew into the air like a bullet. Only then did I realize it was Stronto, the loyal Splendid Dog of Splendid Man’s boyhood, no doubt following its master’s ultrasonic commands. Evidently, Ken was planning to make me the hero of the evening, without once revealing himself as the Man of Splendor.
When the Japanese girl regained her composure, and I had reluctantly released her, I heard Ken whisper, “Bow, Will,” above the pounding of my heart. As I did so, I heard strange Oriental words coming from my direction in a voice uncannily like my own. Good old Ken. The girl was soon chattering animatedly and I, still facing downward, was conversing with her. Suddenly she ran indoors.
“Why that’s marvelous, Will!” bubbled Pepper. “How did you ever become so fluent in Chinese?”
“Well, actually, it’s Japanese,” I said. “And it isn’t so difficult. The only tough part is learning to read from top to bottom.”
Ken ventriloquized in a whisper to me: “Her name is Michiko, she’s single, she’s grateful, and she’ll be right out. Remember, try to cover your mouth discreetly with a drinking glass or a napkin whenever I speak Japanese for you.”
With Michiko at my side we were soon en route to a local Japanese restaurant. At Pepper’s insistence we sat at the sushi bar and sampled odd, nameless meats on rice balls.
“My, this is interesting food,” said Pepper. “I hope we get some raw fish. We don’t have things like this in Municipalitus. San Francisco is so colorful! Did Ken tell you why we’re out here? We’re doing a story on the gay singles scene for our Lifestyle section.”
“That’s fascinating,” I said.
“I’ll say,” Pepper said. “In fact, it’s finally opened my eyes.”
“Now, Pepper,” Ken said. “Don’t start in on that again.”
“Don’t you ‘now Pepper’ me, Ken Clayton!” she snapped. “You know darn well I’m onto something here.” She whirled on me and demanded, “Hasn’t it ever occurred to you that Splendid Man is gay?”
I blinked. Then my jaw fell open. Then I threw back my head and laughed. “Is this a joke?” I sputtered.
“Look at me,” Pepper said, without batting an eye. “Do you find me physically repulsive?”
“No!” I said. “On the contrary.”
“Does it seem reasonable to you that a man would date me for years and never make a pass?”
“Now, Pepper,” Ken broke in. “It’s not nice to put Will on the spot.”
Pepper started to retort, but broke off when Japanese sounds suddenly leapt from my direction. I quickly whipped my face in Michiko’s direction and threw a sake cup before my lips to hide them. She looked a little perplexed, but whatever I said must have been witty, because she dropped her chopsticks to giggle behind her hand. She inclined her head toward me in laughter, her sable hair brushing my shoulder.
Pepper babbled on to Ken. It must have been a chore even for Splendid Man to keep up witty banter for me while not neglecting Pepper, but fortunately conversation with Pepper calls for less talking than listening. When he couldn’t ventriloquize for me, he helped in other ways. A cool breeze sprang up and Michiko snuggled close to me for warmth. It was Ken with his Splendid Breath. When Michiko offered me a chunk of her raw fish and I wondered if I could summon up the courage to eat it, what with all the stories you hear these days about parasites, I noticed Ken discreetly cooking it with the heat setting of his Splendid Vision.
My only fear was that she would ask what I did for a living and Cal would give the wrong answer. After all, I was a novelist for life. I was only temporarily a fitting room supervisor at Mervyn’s.
Suddenly I realized that Pepper was addressing me again. “Tell me, Will. Did you ever read the comic in which I was turned into Jungle Pepper?”
I nodded. “Splendid Man’s Paramour Pepper Pine, issue number 19.”
“Well, if you think the artist made me look sexy, you should have seen me in real life. That leopard-skin shift was like a USA Today story—it barely covered the essentials, if you know what I mean. And what did Splendid Man do when he rescued me? He bundled me up in his cape!”
I couldn’t believe my ears. I’d thought she’d been joking earlier. And yet she forged on, with no punchline in sight. “Then there was the time I adopted the role of Gun Moll Pepper to get the goods on a gangster. And was I one sweet dish! Eight-inch heels. Sheer black dress. Décolletage down to my navel. Lock of raven hair falling seductively over my left eye. And what did Mr. Splendid say when he showed up to make the arrest? He told me I looked like Morticia Addams!”
Pepper smacked the tabletop with the palm of her hand. “Oh, and it isn’t just me who leaves him cold! Take Ms. Torrid Redhead, Patti Pert. She mooned over him all those years when they were growing up together in Turnipville, and he never even tried to get to second base with her. This is a teenage boy I’m talking about. And her with those spandex sweaters! And Pura Poseidonis, the fish girl. Not that I can figure out how you’re supposed to make it with a mermaid, but the point is that Splendid Fella never tried. You tell me, Will. What does all this add up to?”
“That he’s not just the greatest hero in the universe, but the greatest gentleman as well,” I said without missing a beat. Although I must admit that for a moment my words gave me pause. Could Splendid Man have carried his gallantry so far that he was still a virgin?
“Oh, I’ll grant you that he’s a gentleman,” Pepper said. “But even a gentleman gives a girl a meaningful glance every decade or so. Look at you. You only just met your Vietnamese girl and already you’re desperate to jump her skinny bones. Like a normal man!”
“Well, I do like to think I’m…” I started to say, but this time it was Ken who interrupted me.
“Tell me, Pepper,” he said. “Do you think I’m gay?”
Pepper turned to him in surprise. And suddenly Japanese sounds were filling the air again, and I was fumbling for my bowl of miso soup. Good old Splendid Man. Even while having to listen to Pepper’s nonsense, he was making sure I didn’t lose any points with Michiko.
“Why in heaven’s name would I think that?” I heard Pepper say over Michiko’s titters.
“Well, since you’ve often suspected me of being Splendid Man,” Ken said, “then it only stands to reason that….”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Ken,” Pepper said. But then her eyes were narrowing. “Wait a minute. You’ve dated me for years, too. And you’ve never made a pass at me either. Not even the time I posed as Nurse Pepper to get the lowdown on a twisted gynecologist, and even that two-sizes-too-small nurse’s uniform couldn’t get a rise out of you!” She broke off and her eyes opened wide. “But if you were secretly Splendid Man…!”
Ken chuckled. “Good old Pepper, “ he said. “You’ll just never get that silly suspicion out of your head, will you?”
“Hey, no you don’t,” said Pepper. “No changing the subject. This isn’t about Splendid Man’s secret identity. It’s about his secret orientation!”
But Ken was sitting stock still, as if listening to something none of the rest of us could hear. “Excuse me, folks,” he said, sauntering toward the restroom.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Pepper called, but he just kept on walking.
Michiko looked at me, smiling expectantly. Her cheeks were flushed from drinking sake and her luxurious hair fell across one eye. The right eye, in this case. She made me forget Pepper’s babblings in an instant. But I had no idea what to say. I tried to think of an intelligent question.
“Er…what did you think of Mishima’s suicide?” I asked.
“I sorry,” she said. “Japanese please.”
I was saved from great embarrassment by sudden cries of “Splendid Man! Splendid Man!” from the tables by the windows. Apparently, his red and gold form had cleaved the sky for an instant, and everyone was craning to see. Michiko ran to the windows.
Pepper jerked upright in the seat beside me. She stared misty-eyed toward the windows, a hand held to her throat. “What a man,” I heard her sigh. “What a dreamboat. How could he possibly be…? How could I have ever doubted his…? Oh, what gets into me, anyway?!” But an instant later she was leaning toward me and whispering confidentially, “Have you ever noticed that Ken is never around when Splendid Man appears?”
I shrugged. “I’m sure it’s just a coincidence.”
“Oh, that’s what Catman always says,” she snapped. “I think you’re all trying to keep something from me.”
And just like that she seemed to be her old spunky self again. I guess years of unrequited love can cause some wild mood swings.
“Say, how did you and Ken meet, anyway?” she asked.
I gulped. I couldn’t very well tell her that I’d met Ken in his identity as Splendid Man when he’d swooped to my timely rescue the time I’d panicked in the dentist’s chair and let out such a loud scream that he’d picked it up with his power of Splendid Hearing from across the country, and that he’d decided I was too shaky to walk so he’d flown me back to my apartment and noticed my floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with novels and told me that he wished he knew more about literature, and that one thing led to another until I’d agreed to serve as his sort of informal cultural mentor.
“Well…er…” I said instead. “I went to Municipalitus for the…er…vintage paperback show and…er…Ken was covering it for your paper and we discovered that we both had a soft spot for the novels of…er…Gil Brewer.”
“Well, look who’s back, right on cue,” she said, and I realized she hadn’t been listening to a word I’d said. I turned to see Ken strolling back from the restroom, combing back his hair.
“What’s all the excitement?” he asked. “Did I miss something?”
“You don’t know a thing about it, I suppose?” said Pepper icily.
When Michiko returned, she squeezed my hand and bubbled over with words, probably about Splendid Man. I longed to say anything that would encourage her to keep seeing me. I figured that once Ken got her interested in me I could learn Japanese and keep things going on my own. Almost inaudibly I whispered, “Tell her that I can introduce her to Splendid Man.” I knew only Ken’s Splendid Hearing would pick up my words.
I cleverly arranged my chopsticks over my mouth and Ken promptly ventriloquized. Michiko looked perplexed. Ken tried again. The words were strange, full of P sounds and strongly rolled R’s. Michiko asked a question in Japanese and this odd language filled the air more and more stridently. People turned around to stare. Then Ken gave up. Michiko drew away from me, troubled. I desperately tried to communicate with her.
“Er…you likee sushi?” I asked.
Suddenly she bolted from the sushi bar, tears shining in her eyes.
“You men!” Pepper cried. “Whatever did you say to that girl?” She ran after her to the bathroom.
I was dumbfounded. I shook Ken by the arm. “What happened? What was that language?”
“I don’t understand it,” he said. “I tried to speak Japanese and instead spoke Strontiumese, the language of my native planet Strontium on which all life was destroyed by a great flood when I was an infant. Then I tried Korean, Mandarin, and two of the Ainu dialects of Hokkaido, but for some reason whenever I try to speak a foreign language it comes out Strontiumese!”
“You were doing fine before you disappeared!”
“I picked up an ultrasonic intergalactic distress call with my Splendid Hearing,” he said. “A planet of peaceful alien creatures orbiting Arcturus was being attacked by my old enemies in the Vengeance Is Mine Squad. I flew out to set things right and hurried back by the shortest—Great Amundsen! Now I remember! That lavender meteor I passed must have been composed of lavender strontiumite, the mysterious substance from the planet Strontium which mutates all Strontiumese natives in the most fantastic ways possible for forty-eight hours!”
“Damn it, Ken!” I snapped. “Forty-eight hours is too long! This is my only chance with Michiko, and she must already think I’m snubbing her!”
I was frantic, but Ken, as always, remained calm. “You know, Will,” he said, “lavender strontiumite always lands me in some seemingly inextricable predicament. But somehow a way out usually presents itself.”
I fumed. “What is it with strontiumite, anyway? I mean, why the hell are there fragments of your planet floating around? Strontium was devastated by a flood. It’s not like internal stresses made it explode or anything.”
“That’s true, Will. But the waves of the great flood were so powerful that they actually flung chunks of strontiumite into the air at such speed that they escaped the planet’s gravitational pull and flew into outer space, where cosmic rays then transmuted them in various peculiar ways. Many of them hurtled to Earth as meteorites, while others, like the one I encountered this evening, continue to drift endlessly through space.”
“Just my damned luck,” I muttered.
“I’ll admit that this is awfully bad timing. I’ll have to think hard to get us out of this one.”
“Well, you’d better think fast,” I said. “Because here come the ladies.”
Pepper approached us huffily while Michiko waited behind her, eyes averted. “I don’t know what your friend said, Ken, but Mariko here thinks he doesn’t want to talk to her anymore. I’m taking her home.”
“Er…” I said.
“Now Pepper, I’m sure…er…Will didn’t mean to offend her,” said Ken.
Pepper angrily led Michiko to the door. Michiko turned to me with a look of sadness that tore my heart out. “Sayonara,” she said.
“That means…” Ken started to say.
“I know,” I interrupted. “Sayonara means goodbye.”
But they never got to the door. To everyone’s amazement, most of all mine, Splendid Man appeared. He strode through the restaurant, meeting the awed whispers of the patrons with a reassuring smile.
But wait a minute, you say: How can Splendid Man be here when his alter ego Ken Clayton is standing by my side? Can it be one of the Splendid Man robots Ken keeps in his Municipalitus apartment to help preserve his secret identity?
But Splendid Man bowed to Michiko and addressed her in fluid Japanese. Michiko squealed and clapped her hands like a child. When Splendid Man finished his speech she turned to me and shook my hand.
“I sorry. Before I not understand what happen,” she said. “I hope you feel better soon.”
Mystified, I bowed and thanked her.
“Well,” said Ken, “shall we finish our sushi?”
But Michiko, having said her piece to me, turned back to Splendid Man. He tried to extricate himself, but Michiko sidled close and pelted him with questions.
Ken frowned. I guess he could tell as well as I could that, despite all his trouble, Michiko wouldn’t be thinking much of me anymore that night. “I’m sorry, Will,” he said.
“I guess it just wasn’t meant to be,” I said.
Without moving his lips, Splendid Man suddenly said in English, “Pepper, this girl has had a trying night. Why don’t you walk her home? I’ll explain the whole situation to Ken and he can fill you in later.”
“Well, all right,” said Pepper reluctantly. She was gazing at Splendid Man with such naked longing that I could tell all the ridiculous accusations she’d made earlier were forgotten. “Come on, Yoko. If the men want to have secrets from us, let them.” As they left, Michiko waved plaintively to Splendid Man alone, and Pepper muttered, “I was sure Ken was Splendid Man this time.”
Outside, in the welcome darkness, Ken and Splendid Man and I found one of Splendid Man’s robots waiting patiently.
“I want to get to the bottom of this mystery,” I said. “Obviously, one of your robots couldn’t speak Japanese fluently without the aid of Splendid Ventriloquism. But, just like in the comics, one of your prominent friends could have disguised himself to resemble you and done your talking for you.”
“Yes,” said Ken. “By an ultrasonic whispered command I ordered one of my robots in Municipalitus to find a Japanese-speaking friend and whisk him here, along with a Splendid Disguise kit. Then I informed him of the problem in English by Splendid Ventriloquism and he was able to save both the social situation and my secret identity.”
“Let me guess,” I said, gesturing toward the ersatz Splendid Man. “Under that lifelike rubber mask is the face of Wyatt Brewster, better know as Catman!”
“That’s a good guess,” said Ken. “But even the remarkably well-educated Wyatt Brewster isn’t fully conversant in the Asian languages. For this delicate assignment I needed someone in full command of Japanese.”
The false Splendid Man peeled the rubber mask from his head to reveal the countenance of a grey-haired, cheerfully smiling Asian.
“Will, this is my friend Akihito, the Emperor of Japan,” said Ken. “Your Excellency, this is my friend Will Jones.”
“Well, this is a surprise,” I said.
“Very please to meet you,” said Emperor Akihito in accented but elegant English. “Splendid Man inform me that you wish to be novelist.”
“Well,” I admitted, “I do like to write. But tell me, what did you say to Michiko?”
“Ah, very simple,” said the Emperor with a quick bow. “This one say to young lady that Splendid Man battle old Nemesis, evil genius Pox Pascal, in sky above San Francisco. During this battle, malevolent ray from Pascal’s villanous device strike unfortunate Jones-san, making him unable to speak our humble Japanese language.”
“It’s awfully nice of you to go out of your way to help me,” I said.
“Akihito and I have been close ever since we were introduced by our mutual gal pal, Pura Poseidonis,” said Ken, putting his arm around the nobleman. “She was helping him with some of his amateur ichthyological research when she needed me to zip in and head off a tsunami. But now I guess I should have my robot whisk him back to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo before he’s missed.”
“Please, one moment,” said the Emperor. He backed away, fishing in the pouch of his Splendid Man uniform. “Please stand together,” he said, drawing out a digital camera.
Ken and I posed, Akihito snapped a picture, then Akihito and Ken posed, and then the Emperor and I. At last we bowed and shook hands.
“This one hope to meet you again, Jones-san,” said the Emperor. “And please, visit me anytime, Splendid Man. I mean...Clayton-san!” He giggled and replaced the rubber mask of Splendid Man. The Splendid Robot gathered him up, wrapped him in its cape to shield him from the buffeting of the wind on his trans-Pacific flight, and launched itself into the sky. We waved until they were out of sight.
“Cup of coffee?” asked Ken as we walked along the dark street, watching the fog pour in from the ocean.
“Maybe you should get back to Pepper,” I said.
“Please don’t think harshly of Pepper,” Ken said. “She gets a little…frustrated sometimes, but she’s really a lovely person.”
“Of course she is,” I said.
“And sometimes she says things that are better left unsaid.”
“In one ear and out the other, pal.” I said.
“And I’m really sorry about how things worked out tonight,” said Ken. “Lavender Strontiumite always picks the worst times to afflict me. I should have been more careful.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I’ve learned a lesson from tonight. Nobody can make me more appealing to a woman than I already am, not even Splendid Man.”
“There’s a million fish in the sea, Will,” said Ken.
“She seemed taken with you,” I said. “Or at least with Emperor Akihito dressed up as you. Will you be seeing her yourself?”
“I wouldn’t do that to you, Will,” said Ken. “Neither would Akihito. You know, a lot of fellows who were raised to believe they were the direct descendant of the Sun Goddess and then suddenly had to get used to being just another guy might go around with a chip on their shoulder. But he’s as decent as they come.”
“At least I can feel that Michiko doesn’t hate me,” I said. “Though I guess I’ll never be able to see her again.”
We stood on a hill looking out at the lights of the city, softened by the fog. Ken put his arm around me.
“I know it’s disappointing, Will,” he said. “But think of the heartwarming lesson we’ve learned. You may have lost a girl, but we’ve seen how the leaders of the free nations of the world can come to the aid of their allies in solving international problems.”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s some consolation.”