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?”

Click on Older Posts to see Episodes 3 and beyond...

Episode Three. Will and Splendid Man's Double Date

“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.”

Episode Four. Splendid Man the Movie

We had to stand in line for two hours to get into the movie. I considered asking Ken to sneak us in at Splendid Speed, but I knew he would never use his powers for his own advantage.

The movie wasn’t worth the wait. Like all these movies they’re making about Splendid Heroes these days, it was long on violence and special effects, and short on character and verisimilitude. And like all its ilk, it portrayed the hero as tough and vengeful, rather than noble and just. I felt Ken squirm beside me several times and suspected he felt as did I. The crowd seemed to love it, though. I guess there’s no accounting for taste.

The only good thing about the movie was Lance DeWilde, the unknown actor who had been cast to portray the Man of Splendor. I reflected on the irony that his name was so reminiscent of Tyrone DeBold’s, the actor who had played Splendid Man in the TV show all those years ago. But where DeBold had been broad of frame and rather craggy of feature, this new kid very nearly mirrored Splendid Man’s panther-like grace and classic good looks. Not to mention how uncannily he captured the vaguely effeminate air Splendid Man assumes in his secret identity of Ken Clayton.

Ken seemed pensive when we left the theater. I was about to ask what was the matter when a young autograph hound ran up crying, “Hey! Aren’t you Lance DeWilde?”

Ken simply said, “No.” I had never seen him so curt with anyone before.

A few blocks later, after the crowd had thinned out, we were finally able to talk.

“I’m not like that, am I, Will?” he asked.

“It’s only a movie,” I said. “You know how they always butcher good stories when they make movies out of them. Look at Cheaper by the Dozen.”

“I don’t mean that,” he said. “I mean the way they portrayed me. Tell me, Will, do you think I’d stoop to beating the bad guy insensate? Do you think I’d take personal retribution on some poor twisted soul who felt a life of crime was his only recourse?”

“But that’s how they always portray Splendid Heroes in movies these days. Look at that Dark Catman movie they made. We both know Catman would never douse the villain with gasoline and set him on fire.”

“I can’t believe the way the audience reacted,” he went on, as if he hadn’t heard a word I’d said. “Is that what people want from me? Do they want the self-appointed guardian of mankind to use his Splendid Powers to vindicate himself on personal enemies?”

I’d never seen Splendid Man so upset, not even when he’d told me of how he had been unwittingly responsible for the death of his foster-parents, Joseph and Mary Clayton, when he’d taken them vacationing to a deserted Pacific atoll having forgotten that it was to be the site of an atomic bomb test.

“And another thing,” Ken said. “Do they take my vow to mankind so lightly? Do they think I’d give up my Splendid Powers just for the love of a woman? Tell me, Will. Would you marry a woman who demanded that you give up writing?”


“I thought not. I’m very fond of Pepper, Will. Have no doubt about it. But what makes these filmmakers think that after years of dating I would suddenly give up everything for her hand in marriage? Do they think that after decades of preserving my secret identity through innumerable clever ruses, I would give it away by absentmindedly sticking my hand in a meat grinder? And besides, is it fair to Pepper? It’s just going to get her hopes up again, and you don’t know how it distresses me to see her get hurt.”

“Maybe you should view the movie as an imaginary story, such as the comics used to feature,” I suggested. “Like the one in which Pepper is rocketed to Strontium as a tot and becomes the Splendid Woman from Earth. Or the one in which you’re injected with a serum as an infant which causes you to grow into the High Rise Splendid Boy.”

“You know as well as I do that comic book sales are down, Will. Millions of people out there will see this movie and take that picture of me for what I really am, instead of the picture my pals at AC/DC Comics have been faithfully painting of me for all these years. That guy who wrote the movie, that Jerry Jacobs fella, he’d really be in trouble if I were the kind of guy he made me out to be. I’d fly down to Hollywood this minute and let him have it. Pow! Right in the kisser!”

We came upon a cafe that was open late. When I suggested that we get a cup of coffee, Ken followed me silently. It was one of those places that tries for an old-fashioned decor. It even had a revolving door.

Ken brooded silently at the table. I tried to cheer him up. “Think of it this way,” I said. “Sure the movie showed you being petty and thuggish. It shouldn’t have. But at least it showed good triumphing over evil.”

“Did it, Will?” When the coffee came, Ken sipped at his listlessly. He looked so depressed, I wondered if there might not be some silver strontiumite secreted nearby. ”Did it show good triumphing over evil? It showed a hero, who is supposed to represent good, giving in to all sorts of self-indulgences. Of course, everybody is tempted by revenge and sex and cutting into a long line. But part of standing up for goodness is resisting those temptations, doing what’s best for mankind.”

“That’s true,” I said. “But a lot of teenage moviegoers would have trouble identifying with that.”

“That’s the trouble with this world!” yelled Ken, pounding his fist on the table. People stared. Fortunately, even in his anger, he held back his Splendid Strength, and the table wasn’t reduced to sawdust. “Why can’t youngsters identify with someone who commits himself to the good of other people? When I was a boy, growing up in Turnipville, my friends and I thought of nothing but what was right. If it ever appeared that my parents or my boyhood friends Roswell Smutts or Patti Pert or my loyal Splendid Dog Stronto had done some wrong, it was invariably either a misunderstanding or the scheme of some dastardly villain! And the villains were always defeated! They were evil to the core, and doesn’t good always defeat evil?”

When he finished his tirade, the cloud came back into his eyes. “I don’t know,” he said, stirring his coffee idly. “The world was simpler then. Maybe I’m just out of date.”

“But you continue to be the idol of millions,” I said. “You’ve inspired generations with your never-ending battle for truth, justice, and, until the neo-conservative hijacking of our government, the American Way. The good people of the Earth can sleep secure in their beds, knowing that you are watching over them.”

“Don’t try to cheer me up, Will,” he sighed. “I know how helpless I am. What can Splendid Strength do to slow the spread of religious intolerance at home and abroad? What can all the Splendid Vision in the universe do against the scourge of AIDS? How can Splendid Breath prevent the polarization of the body politic? How can Splendid Ventriloquism stamp out genocide in the third world? Can even my Strontiumese invulnerability turn back the rising tide of homophobia?” He shook his head dismally.

Somehow I had to bring my pal out of his profound depression. I thought I’d been glum over my financial and romantic problems, but now I realized what a burden the hero of heroes must bear on his mighty shoulders. Even the worst days at my temporary telemarketing job couldn’t compare to this. I felt a little selfish.

“I’ve never heard you like this before,” I said.

“I try not to show it,” he said. “It would dispirit too many people. You know, I’ve always had the feeling that my Splendid-Powered pals in the North American Alliance for Meetness look up to me, and I know I’m a big influence on my little cousin Splendid Girl and such other young heroes as the Array of Splendid Striplings and the Pubescent Paladins, that posse of powerful sidekicks. What would they all think if Splendid Man sat around crying into his coffee instead of taking action?”

“Do you feel like this a lot?”

“When something happens to me to make me feel helpless,” he said. “The only way to fight the feeling is to fly. It’s like that book you gave me for my last birthday, Zorba the Greek. Zorba dances, I fly. When Ma and Pa Clayton were vaporized by that atomic blast, I flew. When the blue android space criminal Cerebriac shrank the Strontiumese city of Strontor into a can, I flew. I know what the Strontorians thought: That Splendid Man, he is a madman! Here we are, shrunk into a can, and he flies! But if I did not fly I would burst with grief. No one, my friend, not even a native of Strontium under the influence of Earth’s lesser gravity and argon-tinged atmosphere, is invulnerable to a broken heart. When I look over the Earth and see how miserable people are and how little Splendid Man can do for them, then I have to fly. I have to fight malevolent villains! I have to smash runaway planetoids!”

“But you do good,” I said. “What if you didn’t fight Cerebriac and San Francisco got shrunk into a can of Manwich? What if you weren’t there to perform urgent missions in outer space? Think how much misery there would be.”

Ken lowered his head despondently. “I try,” he said. “But then this movie comes along. It makes me wonder about the whole thing.”

Just then, an aging autograph hunter came to the table, calling, “Hey, aren’t you Tyrone DeBold? I thought you’d jumped off a bridge.”

For a moment, I thought Ken was going to vindicate the moviemakers and hit him. Then he grabbed the man’s autograph book, scribbled something quickly, and shoved it back at him. The man read it, said, “Asshole,” and walked away.

“How did you sign it?” I asked.

“Clark Kent,” he said.

I could see he was becoming bad-tempered. “Listen, what you need is a drink. It’ll take your mind off it.”

“Drinking won’t help, Will. With my invulnerable brain cells, alcohol has no effect on my mood or behavior. As much as I enjoy the taste and social ritual of liquor, I could never get drunk except under an argon-free atmosphere.”

I shook my head. “I guess invulnerability isn’t everything.”

Abruptly he stood up, staring off into space. “Excuse me, Will,” he said, and hurried to the revolving door. He spun himself around the door so fast that he and it became a blur. Out flew Splendid Man, where Ken Clayton had been mere moments before. The revolving door slowly rotated to a stop.

I waited quite a while for him to return, long enough to finish my coffee. At last I got up and went to the men’s room. When I returned, Ken was waiting for me at the table. He looked refreshed.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Giganto the Splendid Mandrill escaped from the distant past in which I had imprisoned him,” he said. “He was wreaking havoc in Municipalitus, seeking vengeance on me, the little red and gold man who originally captured him. Defeating him wasn’t easy, but I had virtue on my side.”

“There, you see,” I said. “How many people would have been hurt if you hadn’t been here?”

“It wasn’t like that movie, I’ll tell you,” he said. “The villain in the movie hit Splendid Man with a nuclear sub and he vanished for twenty minutes before he came crawling back like some ninety-seven pound weakling. But not me! I’ve been hit with much bigger things than nuclear subs in my time, and I’m none the worse for it. I’d like to see that Hollywood Splendid Man tangle with a giant mandrill with strontiumite eyes!”

I could see that the change of pace had perked him up. I said, “Let’s pay the check and go out for a while. Maybe we could fly somewhere.”

He caught my wrist. “Tell me, Will. Tell me the truth,” he said earnestly. “I do help people, don’t I?”

“Yes, you do, Ken.”

“And you believe I do it for the good of mankind, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. We all do.”

“And I’m not like that Splendid Man in the movie, am I?”

“Certainly not.”

“One more thing, Will. Do I really look like Lance DeWilde? I mean, I always gave myself some credit for having character in my face. I’m not really that boyishly cute, am I?”

“Well…er…don’t worry about that,” I said. “After all, DeWilde’s just a movie star. You’re the Man of Splendor. He can’t even fly without machines.”

“I suppose not,” said Ken. “But you know, once or twice in the movie I almost believed he could. It’s too bad they can’t use all that money and all those special effects to make a good movie.”

“Well,” I said, “that’s Hollywood.”

“Yes, and I guess that’s life,” he said, and we left the cafe much happier than when we’d entered it.

Click on Older Posts to see Episodes 5 and beyond...

Episode Five. Literary Lad

Splendid Man tapped on the window while I was in the middle of a story. Ordinarily, he just bores through walls to get into a room, but I asked him not to because I have a finicky landlady. I opened the window and he wafted in.

“Hi, pal,” he said.

“Hi, pal,” I said.

“Did I interrupt anything?”

“Oh no, I was only writing,” I said.

“Can I read it?” he asked.

“Well, it’s not finished yet,” I said. He looked hurt, so I added hastily, “I would like your opinion, though. After all, you’re getting to be quite knowledgeable about literature.”

“Thanks, Will,” he said, going to my desk. “By the way, I really enjoyed The Sun Also Rises.”

“Great. What did you think of the scene where Jake and Bill go fishing in the mountains? Wasn’t Hemingway’s description of the wine being so cold that it hurt the backs of their eyes just great?”

“I wouldn’t know anything about pain,” he mumbled. I could tell he was already absorbed in my story.

I lit a cigarette and paced nervously, waiting for his judgment. Of course, I knew that his opinion wouldn’t really matter, since not even Splendid Man could be objective about a story based on himself.

“This is terrific, Will,” he finally said. “It reminds me of Northern Light’s Casebook, in which Fugface, his Siberian grease monkey, records all of his colorful adventures.”

“Yes,” I said. “It is very much like that, only different.”

“Not that I would call this story particularly colorful. Boy, I really let that movie get me down, didn’t I? You certainly describe it vividly, though. Your writing really seems to be coming along.”

“Maybe so, Cal,” I said. “But will people remember me a thousand years from now?”

“Why, I don’t know, Will,” he said. “But shouldn’t you worry about getting published first?”

“Sure,” I said. “There’s that. But every artist dreams of immortality for his works and fears the thought of someday being forgotten. I know you understand, Cal. You’re always present at the ceremonial unveilings of the many statues and monuments erected in your honor throughout the universe.”

He looked thoughtful and absentmindedly fumbled for a cigarette in the pack I’d left on the desk. “Is this really weighing on you, Will?”

I shrugged. “Maybe it’s just my temporary job sticking those little labels on tomatoes that’s getting me down. But no, there’s more to it than that. I’ve been feeling blue ever since I read the Iliad. I was awed that any book could survive for so many centuries—and then it hit me that my books might be forgotten mere decades after my death. If I ever break into print, that is. Sure, I could be like Dan Brown or Stephen King and make a million dollars on some ephemeral trash. But who’s going to remember The Stand or Carrie a hundred years from now, let alone a thousand? Hell, who remembers Cujo today?”

“Wasn’t that the one about the malevolent dog?” asked Cal.

“Okay, you remember,” I said. “But that’s only because you have the power of Splendid Recall. By the time you and I are gone, Cujo may as well never have existed—a fate I wouldn’t wish on a malevolent dog! How do I know my work isn’t going to suffer the same oblivion?”

Cal mulled over my words for a few moments, puffing on the cigarette, and said, “There’s only one way we can find out for sure.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Simple. We can take a little trip into the future.”

“No kidding?” I exclaimed.

“Now that I think about it,” he said, “I haven’t visited my young friends in the Array of Splendid Striplings for quite some time. We can kill two birds with one stone. Figuratively speaking, of course, as my code prevents the taking of all life.”

“Great!” I said. “The Array of Splendid Striplings!”

Without further ado, Cal bundled me in his cape, opened the window, and shot into the sky, instantly exceeding the speed of light. Braving mortal harm from the temporal winds that would have buffeted me to death if not for the indestructible cape that enfolded my body, I uncovered my eyes for a peak at the trans-temporal landscape. Sure enough, we were speeding through a tunnel of multicolored concentric rings, the dates posted between each ring in blurry black numerals. Within moments, we materialized in front of the Stripling clubhouse in the year 3008.

Maybe you’re like me, and you’ve always wondered how the Stripling Clubhouse can be so vast indoors but appear so unimposing from the exterior. Believe me, this discrepancy is the fault of the comic book artists. The place is huge, easily dwarfing the Empire State Building.

As we landed on Stripling Plaza, a welcoming committee of Striplings emerged from the clubhouse. I saw Uranus Lass and Multi Girl. I saw Mesmer Miss and Kangaroo Kid and Cerebriac 6.2. They were all dressed in their colorful Stripling garb. I expected Splendid Man to introduce me, but before he had a chance to do so, the Striplings crowded around me, exclaiming in chorus, “It’s the Bard! The Bard himself!”

I didn’t know what they were talking about at first, until I noticed that they all carried books in their hands. Multi Girl was the first to shove hers at me, stammering, “M-m-may I have your autograph, M-M-Mr. Jones?”

My heart beat a tattoo against my chest as I took the book from her hands and saw, inscribed in bold red letters across the top, the name “Will S. Jones.” But even more surprising was realizing that the title of the book was totally unfamiliar to me. Here I was, 1,000 years in the future, about to autograph a book I hadn’t even written yet!

When I started to take it from her, she gasped, “J-j-just autograph the cover!”

“Okay,” I said. “But I’d love to take a look at…”

“Er…there’ll be plenty of time for that later,” said Splendid Man. “Now let’s have the Striplings give you a tour of their clubhouse. I’ll tell you what, Will. I’ll leave you here with the teenage Array of Splendid Striplings, who are better known to you from the comics, while I fly a little further into the future to visit my pals the adult Striplings.”

When I saw the way the girls were gazing at me, I hoped Splendid Man wouldn’t hurry back. I hadn’t had so many lovely young women adoring me like that since high school, and then I’d only been fantasizing.

Abruptly Kangaroo Kid, with his overdeveloped legs, bounced between me and the girls. He barked, “Here in the 31st century, we consider you a literary immortal, Mr. Jones!”

“Well, I do like to think I’m ahead of my time,” I said, reaching for the book in his hand. “But I’d love to take a look at…”

“Let’s…er…give Mr. Jones that tour!” blurted Mesmer Miss, pulling me suddenly through the giant doors of the clubhouse.

It was killing me not being able to look in that book. What had I written about? Had I finally found my narrative voice? Had I learned to liven up my dialogue? And why would I have named it Tender Is the August Light? But the kids really seemed to have their heart sets on giving me this tour, and Will Jones was one literary immortal who was not going to disappoint his fans.

My tour guide was Cerebriac 6.2, the futuristic upgrade of that 21st century Cerebriac whose faulty operating system had turned him into a notorious space criminal. “This is the Stripling lobby and reception area, Mr. Jones,” he said, “housing a 31st century Menti-Projector which beams a perpetual tape recounting the colorful origins of all the Striplings directly into the viewer’s cerebral cortex.”

“That’s very interesting,” I said, as convincingly as I could.

From there we went up to Level 1, where Cerebriac 6.2 explained, “Here is where our arsenal and nuclear power generators, both powered by quintile crystals, are housed. To protect them, the walls of the Stripling Clubhouse are reinforced with magno-plastic lined with maxo-inertron, the most durable of all cosmic alloys. Needless to say, they are able to withstand the most powerful of attacks.”

Cerebriac 6.2, with his Positronic Brain from the 8th Dimension, was as intelligent as I’d always heard. Unfortunately, too much brain can make you boring.

“So tell me,” I said. “How many of my books are still in print here in the 31st century?”

“Er…that sounds like a perfect question for The Marvelous Construct,” he said, “that computational device so advanced that it can discover any information and fabricate any object known to sentient life. I shall be taking you to it soon.”

“Swell,” I said. “And do you know if they’ve been published on many other planets?”

“Since you bring up other planets,” he said hastily, “I’m sure you will be fascinated by the Monitor Cubicle, where the progress of such other Striplings as Pig-Out Boy, the Too-Tall Kid, and Peanut can be followed in their various missions on color screens.”

“Whatever,” I said. “How about movies? Have any major motion pictures been based on my books? And have any biographies been written about me? How well did they capture the man…the artist?”

He opened his mouth, looking a little disconcerted, but before he could answer I was pelted by female voices:

“Where do you get your ideas?”

“Since all your books are set in the 21st century, does that mean you write from life?”

“Did you grow your beard in honor of Hemingway or did he grow his in honor of you?”

I turned and found all three girls crowding up against me. No, make that all five girls—three of whom were physically identical. For a moment I assumed they were clones, and wondered if by the 31st century the Christian Right had finally been forced to relinquish its chokehold on American progress. Then I remembered Multi Girl’s power of Splendid Self Duplication. All three of her were gazing up at me with big liquidy eyes.

“Did you choose literature or did it choose you?” asked one Multi Girl.

“Do you read reviews of your books?” asked another.

“Do you have to suffer to be an author?” asked the third.

“Well,” I said, “hardship does help the author hone his vision.”

The Multi Girls sighed.

“Hey, Splendid Heroes have hardships too!” said Kangaroo Kid churlishly. “Multi Girl, remember the time I single-handedly defeated the piranha-birds of Alabaster VI? Or the time I saved the people of Diphthong II from a horde of two-legged spider beasts? Or the time I used my remarkable hopping ability to repel an invasion of Ganymedean brain suckers?”
The Multi Girls batted their eyes at me.

“How did it feel when you won your first Pulitzer?”

“Why do most authors commit suicide?”

“Is it true that authors drink and smoke a lot?”

“Well,” I answered, “drinking and smoking do help the author hone his vision. Speaking of which, would you say my vision changed the direction of fiction in general? Did I inspire any literary movements? Did I ever appear on C-Span’s Book Notes?”

Abruptly, Kangaroo Kid, with his commodious limbs, launched into a series of hopping tricks such as no 21st century acrobat could have imagined possible. “Remember this, Multi Girl?” he yelled. “Remember how I repelled the brain suckers? Look at me, Multi Girl! Look at me!”

The Multi Girls rolled all six of their eyes and said, “There seems to be some annoying noise around here. Let’s go someplace quiet where we can talk about literature.”

“Uh, sure,” I said, as two Multi Girls each slipped an arm through mine and the third tugged me forward by my lapel. “And while we’re at it, did I ever win the Nobel? Is there a plaque on my old apartment building in the Richmond District? Have any statues been erected in my honor? Did…”

The words died in my throat. Suddenly a fourth Multi Girl appeared before us, but where the others were Platonic ideals of youthful beauty, this was a parody of adolescence, all acne, braces, and greasy hair.

“You quit that, Mesmer Miss!” snarled the other three Multi Girls in chorus. “You’re not going to make the Bard like you better with a stupid trick like that!”

The fourth Multi Girl dissolved into a golden cloud, and Mesmer Miss stepped through it, gazing worshipfully at me. “I just wanted the Bard to appreciate my Splendid Power of Illusion,” she said, “so that it would mean more when I told him how amazed I was by the illusion of reality he cast in his novels with no Splendid Powers at all.”

“Uh, thanks,” I said. It was beginning to dawn on me that something odd was going on. You can’t blame youngsters for going gaga over a literary immortal, but these gals were just a little too doe-eyed and dewy-lipped for comfort. And the racket of Kangaroo Kid bouncing frantically off the walls didn’t exactly settle my nerves.

Mesmer Miss was getting a little too close to me when words filled my head: “Don’t waste your time with these children, Mr. Jones. Or may I address you telepathically as Will?” That’s when I noticed Uranus Lass smiling coyly at me. “I think you’ll find that with my Splendid Mind Reading Power, I’ve developed an insight into the human soul quite advanced for my age. Of course, it’s nothing compared to yours!”

Suddenly Mesmer Miss turned snarling on her teammate. “No fair, Uranus Lass! I know you’re thinking to the Bard! No fair using Splendid Powers to get him all to yourself!”

“No fair, she says!” Uranus Lass telepathed. “It just so happens that she’s using her Power of Illusion right now to hide a humongous zit on the tip of her nose!”

“You’d better not be telling him about my zit!” screeched Mesmer Miss.

“Just remember, Bard,” thought Uranus Lass, “with me, what you see is what you get—as Negroes used to say before the advancement of science rendered urban slang obsolete.”

Cerebriac 6.2, with his Positronic Brain from the 8th Dimension, must have sensed the tension in the air, because he suddenly asked, “Mr. Jones, would you care to visit the room in which is housed The Marvelous Construct, which can grant any wish, no matter how subliminal, even if one were to wish unconsciously, for example, for the end of the universe, and is thus the most dangerous device in existence?”

But before the words were out of his mouth, the girls were going at each other, slapping, pulling hair, and kicking each other’s ankles. Appalled, I wondered how these lifelong allies could turn on each other over a man, even if that man was a literary immortal. Had the collapse of sexual morals that began in the 1960s finally undermined the ethics even of Splendid Heroines?

I had to get out of there. It was the decent thing to do, I knew, and the only way I could restore peace and allow them to repair their friendships. Plus I didn’t like the look in Kangaroo Kid’s eyes as he came bouncing toward me.

“Take me to that Construct!” I yelled to Cerebriac 6.2.

But as I turned to run, something even stranger happened. Each of the Multi Girls split in two like an amoeba, and suddenly, while three duplicates kept up the fight with Uranus Lass and Mesmer Miss, three more were running full tilt at me.

“Don’t worry, Bard!” one whispered.

“We’ll ditch those hussies!” hissed another.

“From now on, it’s just you and us!” whispered the third.

The three of them grabbed me and dragged me down the hall. They shoved me into a room and slammed the door behind me. I glanced around. I took in the canopy bed, the stuffed animals, the brightly hued cosmetics on the dresser, the lacy brassieres scattered on the floor, and the poster of what could only be a 31st century boy band, and I realized to my horror that I was in a teenage girl’s bedroom. And by the extraordinary number of mirrors lining the walls I realized it must be Multi Girl’s.

“Now, wait a minute…” I began, hoping some authority was getting past the quaver in my voice.

“Please, Bard,” said one of the Multi Girls. “Don’t leave yet. I just want your autograph.”

“Well, if that’s all,” I said with a sigh of relief, “I suppose I can…”

And suddenly all three of them were gripping the necklines of their bodysuits and starting to tug them lower. “In history class they told us how 21st century groupies liked to have celebrities autograph their chests!” she giggled. “The other girls will turn green when they learn I’ve got the Bard’s autograph on all my chests!”

“W-w-wait a minute!” I wailed, and tried to get around them to the door. But the Multi Girls did that amoeba thing again, and suddenly there were six teenage beauties barring my way, all stretching the fabric of their tops and about to expose an even dozen underage breasts. Visions of spending the rest of my life as the only literary immortal in a 31st century maxo-inertron penitentiary began filling my mind.

“Do you have a Sharpie?” all six asked.

And then I was saved. The door flew open and the malformed figure of Kangaroo Kid exploded into the room. “All right, Multi Girl! Don’t you think you’re taking this a little too far? Just because we agreed to Splendid Man’s scheme to trick Will into thinking that his books survived for a thousand years doesn’t mean you have to throw yourselves all over him! We’re supposed to be reinforcing his literary ambition, not his perversions!”

“Who are you to talk, you lop-eared freak?!” snapped one of the Multi Girls. “How many times have you asked all of me to…”

“What?” I said. They all stopped dead as I tried to find my voice. “Is this true? Has my pal Splendid Man deceived me?”

The other Striplings had crowded in behind Kangaroo Kid, but none seemed to have the nerve to speak. At last Uranus Girl telepathed to me, “I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, but I’m afraid it’s true. Earlier, when Splendid Man said he was flying to the future to visit the adult Striplings, he was really flying an hour into the past to tell us you were coming and set up his plan to boost your confidence. He made up a literary-sounding book title and then we used The Marvelous Construct to make fake covers and slap them on several copies of one of the classics in our library. Please don’t hold it against us, Mr. Jones. We only did it so you’d go back to the 21st century inspired to keep writing.”

“We never expected that all of us girls would find you so, you know, exciting,” said Mesmer Miss. “Especially considering that Multi Girl has been selected to mate with Kangaroo Kid, Uranus Lass has been matched with Sleet Lad, and I’m been designated a perfect partner for Shaolin Five Animals Kung-Fu Kid. It’s just that were not accustomed to meeting such…well… masculine men from the 21st century.”

“Not to mention that the advancement of science long ago rendered male sex appeal obsolete,” added Multi Girl. “Our bodies just have no natural defenses against your pheromones!”

I was crushed. The other Striplings stared at their feet, saying nothing. Moments later, when Cerebriac 6.2, with his Positronic brain from the 8th Dimension, began to speak, I realized that they had all been conferring telepathically, linked by Uranus Lass’s power.

“Despite this little hoax, Bar…er…Mr. Jones…and despite the fact that we were unable to find any of your works in the libraries of the seven-hundred eighty-two planets which we scanned before you arrived here...we know you really are a good writer, because we’ve monitored your stories on our time screens. In fact, we all agree that your literary prowess is so impressive as to constitute a Splendid Power. Since this power with words is duplicated by no other Stripling and so does not violate our charter, and in spite of the fact that you are no longer a teenager, which manifestly does, we have elected you an honorary member of the Array of Splendid Striplings, along with Patti Pert in her role as Bug Babe, Bobby Anderssen because of the many times he’s fought evil as Centipede Lad, and Splendid Man’s boyhood pal, Roswell Smutts. I hereby christen you Literary Lad!”

“Gee, thanks,” I said, somewhat heartened.

Just then, Splendid Man returned from his bogus mission into the future. I could tell from his averted glance that Uranus Lass had already informed him of the situation telepathically.

“Well, Will, I guess we should go home,” he said quietly.

“We’re really sorry, Will,” said Kangaroo Kid remorsefully as Cal wrapped me in his cape.

“That’s okay,” I said. “I’ll get over it. In time.”

We flew along the time stream in silence. Splendid Man dropped me off at my apartment, mumbled an embarrassed goodbye, and disappeared into the sky. Only then did I pull from my coat the book I had swiped from the future. I allowed myself one last look at my name on the cover. Then I opened it to see what immortal literary classic it was that the young heroes of the future actually kept in their library. I flipped to a page at random and read: "The dog had shat on the garage floor. He had never known Cujo to do such a thing, not even as a pup."

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Episode Six. Prisoner of Pox Pascal

Sometimes when my writing is going badly I like to torture myself by looking at the racks of paperback bestsellers. When I’m losing faith that I’ll ever be able to write another decent paragraph, let alone get published, I can’t resist the shot of envy and bitterness I get from scanning the glossy covers of all those John Grisham and Mitch Albom novels and thinking about the fortunes other writers have amassed by cleverly avoiding any sort of literary voice. Thus it was that I was striding into the foggy night toward the local 24-hour Walgreen’s, abandoning Chapter 68 of my latest novel about a man too passionate to fit into the everyday work world, eager to see what was new from Nora Roberts or Michael Crichton or that literary immortal of the future, Stephen King.

So intent was I on my own misery that I nearly crashed into the man standing on the street corner. I jumped back and started to apologize. Then I noticed his eyebrows. Or, rather, his lack of same.

“Pox Pascal!” I gasped.

“So it would seem,” sneered the criminal mastermind. “Although I may be but a Pox Pascal robot, sent to summon you while my master watches safely from one of his many subterranean hideouts.”

“What do you want with me?”

“I want information that only you possess, Will Jones,” he said. “Or, if in fact I am a robot, I might say that my master wants information that only you possess. You won’t fool Pox Pascal into revealing the truth with one of your faux-naïve questions!”

“I’ve got nothing to tell you,” I said.

“I think I will be the judge of that, Will Jones. Or, if in fact I am a robot, I might say that my master will be…”

“Okay,” I said. “I get it. But why do you think I’d cooperate with you?”

“I have monitored you with my ultrascientific devices for months,” he said, “ever since you first became my enemy’s pal, waiting for the inevitable day when the stars would fall from your eyes like bolides and you would begin to see the flaws in the friend you once venerated!”

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Yeah, sure, he got on my nerves a little with that fake book stunt he pulled. But there’s no one who doesn’t think Splendid Man is the greatest man in the world—and you’re the most nefarious!”

“Really? What about every citizen of the planet Poxor, where I am revered as a hero and your splendid pal is despised as a villain?” He moved a hand slightly, and in the air beside me appeared a giant plastic sphere, as big as my bathroom and as transparent as a soap bubble. “Won’t you join me on a trip to Poxor, Will Jones? It might…broaden your horizons.”

My hand snaked to my pocket and vibrated the teeth of my SOS Comb. Let’s see the grinning fiend act so superior when Splendid Man came to my rescue, I thought. Any second now, I thought. Okay, I thought. Any second…now?

“A problem?” Pascal smirked. “Is it your SOS Comb, perhaps, that isn’t working?”

“You fiend,” I snarled. “You’ve no doubt rigged up a jamming device.”

“Yes,” he chortled. “No doubt I have.”

Before I knew what was happening, a hole had opened in the membrane of the bubble and Pascal had shoved me inside. I found myself standing on an invisible floor within the odd vessel. As I looked down through it, I saw the sidewalk receding beneath my feet. We were taking to the air! The rooftops and hills of San Francisco vanished as we gathered speed upward.

I took a hard look at my companion, then. The gleaming, hairless brows. The great crest of silver hair sweeping high above his head, as if to compensate for the naked forehead. The penetrating blue gems of his eyes and the lips twisted with lifelong bitterness. The lab smock he always wore in case anyone should fail to recognize him as a scientific genius. I realized then what it was that this arrogant scoundrel must want from me, and I swore to myself that nothing, no bribery or coercion, could ever wring from Will Jones the truth of Splendid Man’s secret identity!

I suddenly heard Pascal speaking. “There, before you! Poxor, the world I call my own!”

Sure enough, there was a planet looming into view as the bubble began to slacken its speed. Apparently I’d been so lost in my own angry thoughts that I’d spaced out on an entire lengthy journey through the vastness of the universe. I hate it when I do that.

“I imagine you know about the effects of greater gravitation and argon-free atmosphere on Earthlings,” he said, and slapped a tiny device on the back of my neck. “This device will radiate you with enough antigravitons to preserve your normal strength, while injecting enough argon into your bloodstream to prevent any unwelcome changes to your scrotum.”

“You think of everything,” I said.

“I’m a mastermind,” he said. And with that, the membrane of the space bubble dissolved and we stepped out onto the veranda of Palace Pascal, the lone edifice rising from the vine-filled jungles of Poxor.

“When I first came upon this planet, through a fortunate accident,” he was saying, “I found it entirely overgrown with these creepers and populated by a savage people. But upon further exploration I discovered the ruins of a great, hyperscientific civilization. Although no historical records remain of the civilization’s collapse, I can only surmise that the ignorant masses grew envious of the scientific elite and turned on them, heedless of the fact that their hubris would plunge them into ignorance and barbarism.”

“More likely the elite tied itself to a short-sighted dependence on non-renewable resources and ignored the need for a fair distribution of wealth and a solid foundation of social services,” I said.

Liberals,” he hissed. “Anyway. What matters is that I alone had the know-how to bring the great devices of the past back to life and carve a new civilization out of the vines! I, Pox Pascal, became the savior of a world!”

Sure enough, as he stepped to the edge of the stone veranda, a great roar went up from the plaza below. There thousands of people in identical lab smocks bowed toward us chanting, “Pox! Pox! Pox! Pox! Pox!”

“I’ll bet this is one of those times you wish your parents had given you a different name,” I said.

“Any name is sweet when it is chanted in obeisance,” he said, with a sinister grin. “Imagine that this is a book signing at Book Expo America. Those peasants are the literature enthusiasts of Earth. And they’re chanting, ‘Will! Will! Will!’”

I could see how this guy cut it as an evil mastermind. Sure, I knew I was being manipulated all the way. But I still felt my knees get weak at the thought.

“I have influence with the New York publishing world, Will,” he said. “Do you not think there are criminal masterminds in the book business? How else do you explain the success of Bret Easton Ellis? I can make things happen for you, Will.”

I pondered it. A multi-book deal. Maybe a National Book Award. An end to my temporary job waving a model-home sign on street corners. But I knew it couldn’t be. “No thanks,” I said. “I can become a literary success all by myself.”

He laughed derisively.

“Okay. Then I’ll become a failure by myself.”

He smiled, and I knew he could see through me. “Allow me to give you the tour of Palace Pascal, Will Jones.”

He led me past the giant, blast-proof doors into his windowless sanctum sanctorum. On one wall were photographs of his heroic deeds as savior of Poxor, and on the opposite wall framed newspapers recording his dastardly deeds on Earth. Scattered everywhere were the fruits of his life of pillage: piles of jewels and stacks of cash, strange artifacts from many worlds, paintings by masters from Vermeer to Picasso. Towering over all of it stood a line of giant statues of what I took to be his personal role models, the great plunderers of history. Attila the Hun. Hernándo Cortés. Blackbeard. Dick Cheney.

At a subtle move of his fingers, a mushroom-shaped flying chair cruised toward me. “Please, have a seat,” he said. “We have much to discuss.”

“Forget it,” I said, refusing to budge. “Nothing will make me turn against my pal.”

He made a noise with his tongue that might be best be rendered as, “Tsk tsk,” then added, “Don’t you see that you and I are of a kind, Will Jones? We are men of intellect, men of culture. Why should you give your loyalty to a man of simple physical might?”

I sneered. Pretty well, too, for a guy who doesn’t get a lot of practice sneering. “You’re trying to tell me that’s why you hate Splendid Man?”

“I oppose him because I believe in the natural elite of the intellectual. Because I see through his phony democratism and moral absolutism.”

“Really,” I said. “Then it has nothing to do with…your eyebrows?”

His eyes turned to stone. “Then he admits that it was he who cost me my eyebrows?”

“He says that’s been your tragic obsession, Pascal. That while you were teenagers together in Turnipville, he used the heat setting of his Splendid Vision to burn away the spores of an alien mildew invasion and inadvertently singed your…”

“Inadvertently!” Pascal raised a fist and roared in rage. “As if he couldn’t control his vision to the micron! Once I thought Splendid Boy and I might be allies, able to revel together in our superiority to the herd! But when he burned away my eyebrows and left me a laughing stock at Turnip High, I knew the truth! He was nothing but another high school jock tormenting the outcast brain! And it is high time you saw the truth too!”

“Sorry,” I said. “Nothing you can do will ever induce me to reveal Splendid Man’s secret identity!”

He rolled his eyes. Which, from a guy without eyebrows, is a disconcerting sight. “That again! Why does he persist in thinking I want to discover his secret identity?”

“Well, you know,” I said. “To strike at him through his loved ones.”

He scoffed. “Through his loved ones! As if it isn’t already common knowledge that he’s inexplicably fixated on the obsolescent print journalists of the Muncipalitus Daily Bolide! That he regularly rescues Pepper Pine, liberates Bobby Anderssen from bizarre transformations, and passes news scoops to that mild-mannered reporter Ken Clayton, even though, for reasons I haven’t yet been able to deduce, he and Clayton are almost never seen together. All I have to do is pick up a comic book to get a full list of his loved ones!”

He snatched a brightly colored magazine off a nearby shelf and waved it over his head to emphasize his point. That’s when I noticed the stacks of comics on the shelves. Evidently a life of plunder could net a guy more than a few Vermeers. Just from what I could see, it looked like he had everything. The first appearances of Catman and Quickie. The sought-after Pepper Pine Summer Fun Special with the first page printed upside down. Even the infamously rare Splendid Man Talks about Footwear, in which our hero teamed up with the National Podiatry Council to teach children the importance of good arch support. I was craning my neck to see what was under that one when I realized Pascal was talking.

“What?” I asked.

He blinked at me in what appeared to be impatience. “I said,” he said, “that I don’t care whether Splendid Man is secretly a scout master, a tile installer, or a Hindu mystic.”

“Then what do you want from me?” I asked.

“The secret of the one faculty you have that neither I nor Splendid Man possesses. The one power that makes you so valuable to my archenemy.”

I searched my memory but I wasn’t coming up with anything. Surely he didn’t mean the ability to craft perfect declarative sentences that had earned me a place of honor among the Array of Splendid Striplings.

“Come with me,” he said, and pivoted toward the wall behind him. It slid open, revealing a vast chamber glittering with ultrascientific equipment. I was entering the legendary laboratory of Pox Pascal! Everywhere around me rose tall beakers of bubbling fluid, spinning gyroscopes, crackling arcs of electricity, and, in the middle of it all, a towering structure covered by a metallic tarp.

“When I journeyed to ancient Alexandria to protect the world’s intelligentsia from the virus of plebeian taste,” he was saying, “the last person I expected to stop me was Splendid Man. I’d never have dreamed that he’d even heard of the Library of Alexandria! But when he showed up with you I discovered that my Splendid Nemesis was developing a cultural education. The thought of that musclebound buffoon imagining that he might rival me in knowledge made me want to retch! And so I journeyed further back in time to the moment you arrived and lurked among the book stacks to eavesdrop on his plans. That’s when I first heard of the secret, internal device that you use to penetrate the mysteries of literary creation. I knew the day would come when he found a way to replicate that device—and my sworn enemy would possess yet another power that Pox Pascal does not!”

“Secret, internal device?” I asked.

“I told you not to waste your faux naïveté on me! He asked you how you distinguish between great literature and entertaining junk, and you, foolishly imagining that no one was listening, answered him loud and clear!”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You don’t mean my ‘built-in shit detector’?”

The shrieking laughter he set up echoed off the walls of the laboratory. “Did you imagine that Pox Pascal would allow Splendid Man to possess a mental instrument that he himself did not? Bah! From the moment I returned to the present, I began tracking down every reference ever made to this elusive device in every library and secret laboratory to which my criminal connections gave me access! At long last, I found the first recorded mention of it!” From inside his lab coat he whipped out a yellowing magazine with a pen-and-ink drawing on the cover. “Here, in the Spring 1958 issue of an esoteric chronicle called the Paris Review, a global adventurer named Ernest Hemingway revealed to his ally George Plimpton that every good writer has, and I quote, ‘a built-in, shock-proof shit detector.’”

“You know, you probably could have found that in a few seconds on Google,” I said.

“Google!” he scoffed. “A crutch for intellectual cripples! Pox Pascal has his own ways to extract information!” Then he flung the magazine against the wall. “But curse the fool! He reveals the existence of this shit detection device but nothing about how to assemble one! I returned immediately to my laboratory on Poxor, certain that somewhere in the ancient, arcane scientific learning of this planet’s vanished civilization there must have been research on the process of literary shit detection. But there was nothing! Oh, yes, I was able to develop foolproof devices for achieving perfect color harmony in a spring wardrobe and infallible musical selections for a wedding or anniversary party. But literary shit detection remained beyond the reach of my highest technology!”

I shrugged. “I guess you either have it or you don’t,” I said.

Suddenly he whipped a weird weapon out of his lab coat and leveled it at me. I had no idea what its globular tip might do to me, but I wasn’t eager to find out. “Bosh!” he roared. “And piffle! Nothing can stymie Pox Pascal when he turns his full brilliance with laser-like intensity upon a challenge! Look you now upon my greatest achievement!”

He turned the weapon on the tarp-covered structure in the middle of the lab and squeezed the trigger. There was a flash of light, and the tarp was gone, utterly disintegrated. A colossal device stood revealed, a labyrinth of coils and globes surmounted by missile-shaped towers that loomed over us like grain silos over the Kansas prairies, only different. And a lot scarier.

“Witness Pascal’s Shit Detector!” he crowed. “It can process any work of literature, art, or music in a millisecond and label any portion of it as genius or feces! And thanks to these reinforced titanium plates and teflon seismic pads, it is as shock-proof as any shit detector in the known universe!” He paused to look at it and added, “Of course, I’ll have to do a little miniaturization to make the built-in part work. But there will be time for that later! After I have humiliated the Man of Splendid Ignorance!”

“Whatever,” I said. “But what I’m still trying to figure out is, what do you need me for?”

“Don’t you know?” he cackled.

I thought for a minute. “No,” I said.

“To prove its power!” he roared. “To show you that whatever shit you can detect, my machine can detect more quickly and accurately!” He tossed a paperback book at me. The cover had been ripped off, as if it had been returned for a refund by a supermarket, so I couldn’t see what it was. “Read a few pages of that until you know whether it is shit or not!”

I did so. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him fling an identical book into a sort of laundry-chute door on the side of his humongous machine. “Man,” I said after a minute. “This is some pretentious crap.”

“Ha!” he barked. “We’ll see what you know!” And with a glint of wild triumph in his eyes he pushed a button on the machine. Lights flashed, bells dinged, coils turned, and finally a little card popped out of a slot. Pascal grabbed it triumphantly and read, “This is a dazzling conflation of genre and art, exposing the existential void at the core of our popular dreams.”

“No, it’s not,” I said. “It’s just a guy using the detective story form to put out a load of self-indulgent ambiguity. It doesn’t work as a mystery book or as literature. You must have pumped that machine full of a bunch of academic clichés.”

“Ha!” Pascal barked again. But this time I could see a faint line of sweat on his upper lip. “That happens to be a novel by Paul Auster!”

“No wonder,” I said.

He waited for me to elaborate, but I didn’t see the point. His tongue darted nervously over his lips before he said, “But he is critically acclaimed as a master of postmodernism!”

I shrugged. “Critics always fall for self-reflective shit like this.”

“Oh, so you think you can trick me!” he said with a forced laugh. “You think you can make me believe that my shit detector is still inferior to yours!”

“Okay,” I said. “If it makes you feel better to think so.”

Now I saw his eyes narrow in what was becoming a familiar criminal-mastermind glint. “Fine, then,” he said craftily. “Just for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that you have in fact revealed a flaw in my masterpiece. Let’s just say that you know better. What should I do to make my shit detector as accurate as yours?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Come now, my good friend,” he said. “You wouldn’t deny a fellow intellectual precious cultural knowledge?”

“I really don’t think it’s anything you can program into a machine,” I said.

“All right,” he said, still with that glint. “Have it your way. I’ll have to fix it myself. But let’s not let that spoil our visit, shall we? Step into my parlor and share a refreshment.”

Again the wall behind him opened, this time leading into a cozier, darker chamber. I saw that one wall was made entirely of glass, or, more likely, some other transparent substance much more superscientific than glass. Beyond it were dense jungle habitats and a startling variety of captive creatures.

“I always find it restful to look at my Poxorian menagerie when I converse,” he said. “Evolution has taken such dazzling turns on this world. They fill me with hope for the future.” A flying disk hissed up, carrying drinks. Pascal took one, and then the disk glided toward me. Actually, it glided a bit past me, as if leading me to my right. “So tell me, Will…if I may call you Will…when did you first notice your ability to detect shit?”

I took a step toward the disk. Then I caught myself. I realized that it floated directly opposite one particular pen in the menagerie, and that’s when I tumbled to his plan. What the evil mastermind did not know was that Splendid Man, with his fondness for animals, had once described to me the fauna of Poxor that he’d come to know on one of his adventures as a fugitive on Poxor pursued by misguided Poxorian citizens who believed that any foe of their beloved Pox must be an interstellar criminal. In other words, I knew a lot more about the creatures in Pascal’s menagerie than he would ever have suspected.

That spiny red crustacean with the dagger-like horns thrusting from its fifteen legs, for example, was the Acrimony Beast, which had the power to spread disagreement and peevishness to all sentient beings within a five-hundred kilometer radius. That tripodal monster with the gaping hole in the center of its skull was the Forgetfulness Creature, whose amnesia gas could make a Poxorian forget his own mother. And that one, the soft, fuzzy critter with the large, serene eyes and the mouth permanently fixed in the shape of an open smile, was the Sincerety Thing. Anyone caught in the rays that beamed from those ingenuous orbs was powerless to speak anything but the absolute truth.

It was the Sincerety Thing’s pen that I would have been standing directly in front of had I taken the drink offered me. Obviously Pox Pascal was hoping to weasel the truth from me by maneuvering me right smack into the path of those optical rays.

“Well,” I said casually, “I suppose it was when I read The Pearl in eighth grade.”

“Ah, The Pearl,” he said. “A moving parable of avarice set among the modern poor.”

“Actually, it’s the shittiest thing Steinbeck ever wrote,” I said. As I spoke, I began to pace the room as if agitated. I noticed the Sincerety Thing following me with its great, winning eyes, and I saw my chance to turn the tables on Pascal. “Anytime you have Mexicans speaking without contractions, you’re in trouble. Unless you’re trying to be funny.”

“Then what about The Old Man and the Sea?”

“He was a Cuban,” I said. Out of my peripheral vision I saw a golden glow building in the huge, trustworthy eyes of the Sincerety Thing, and I knew I had only seconds. I looped back in my pacing, toward a point just beyond Pascal.

“And I suppose you’ve been sharing the benefits of your shit detection with your Splendid Friend?” he asked snidely.

“Absolutely. He’s got the makings of a pretty good shit detector in that Splendid Gut of his.” And at the very moment I stepped behind Pascal, the vast, reassuring eyes of the Sincerety Thing began to pour forth their rays. A golden glow bathed the back of the villain’s head. The snideness began to melt from his lips and the calculating glint faded from his eyes. Would the power of the creature really work?

“That’s what hurts me most,” he said softly. “The knowledge that Splendid Man can enjoy companionship and support in his literary discoveries, as rudimentary as his knowledge is, while I am locked in the loneliness of my own competitiveness and insecurity. Even as boys, what I envied most in him was his self acceptance and ability to win affection from others, no matter what he did. Oh, yes, I envied him his ability to fly and lift volcanoes and earn himself medals as the savior of mankind again and again. But my pain ran so much deeper than that. True, I tumbled into self loathing whenever he diverted a giant asteroid from striking the Earth or subdued the radiation-deranged youth known as Strontiumite Sam or decorated the Turnip High gym with crêpe paper for the homecoming dance in the blink of an eye. But not only then. No, I hated myself most when he would just stand there with that fluid grace in his limbs and that unguarded smile on his face, making eye contact and disarming small talk with everyone who approached him. They’d come to him trembling in awe and leave him feeling better about themselves. While I, unable to set them at ease or win their affection—because I didn’t believe in my heart that I was worthy of their affection—had to settle for the brief thrill of inspiring fear and awe, a thrill that would turn to ashes in my mouth before I’d finished laughing maniacally. Did I say I envied him? It was more than envy. God, I adored him. I wanted nothing more than to hear him call me ‘pal.’ But in my profound feelings of inferiority I could not tolerate being but one of many whom he liked. I hungered to be the only one, I hungered to own his love! And when I could not have that, my love turned to hate, my envy to derision. Oh, God, how I adored and loathed his ease, his humility, his compassion, his good humor, and his solid common sense! How, more than anything, I worshiped and envied and despised his wholeness. That damnable way he had of seeming as though his sheer splendidness was no great shakes and that he did not for a moment consider himself better or worse than any other student, whether it be a football star or a pom-pom girl or the president of the Logarithm Club. While my entire, fragile ego was erected on the shaky structure of my intellect! While I convinced myself that I must assert my superiority over others through sheer mental gymnastics, because that was the only way I knew to mute the voices that told me in the dead of the night that I was hopelessly inadequate and utterly unloveable, that no matter how much power and notoriety I acquired with my scientific genius I would end my days alone with my anxiety, bitterness, and unspoken grief. And so I live this sham of a life, casting myself as the archenemy of the one man whose trust and respect I ever truly craved.”

Yep. It worked, all right.

“So I guess this was never really about your eyebrows,” I said.

He cast his eyes down in shame. “I seized upon that only to justify my resentment. The truth is, my eyebrows grew back in a couple of weeks, and I started plucking them to maintain my maimed appearance. It would have sounded fairly stupid to swear lifelong vengeance on Splendid Man because he’d caused my eyebrows to fall out for two weeks in my junior year.”

“It sounds pretty stupid to swear lifelong vengeance because he made your eyebrows fall out under any circumstances,” I said.

It was around this time that the plan began to form in my mind. I realized that if I played my cards right I could seize this once-in-a-lifetime moment to pursuade the greatest evil mastermind in the universe to give up his life of arid intellectualism and empty power-seeking and come back to Earth as a transformed man, devoted to making amends for his lifetime of misdeeds and winning the honest love and gratitude of others. It would have been quite a coup, no doubt about it. Unfortunately, no sooner had I thought of it than I absent-mindedly glanced at the Sincerety Thing, and Pascal turned to see what I was looking at.

“Curses!” he roared. “You’ve trapped me in the ray of my own Sincerety Thing, so that I’m compelled to pour out all my hidden insecurities and self loathings! Now I’ve got to break the connection and persuade you that what you were hearing was not the truth but a set of ingenious deceptions to mislead you!” Then he snorted. “Damn! I’m still doing it!”

With that he lunged for a button on the wall and brought down a colossal lead door between him and the capacious, guileless gaze of the Sincerety Thing. He turned slowly back to me, his eyes narrowed in calculation and a sly smile on his lips. “So,” he said, “I suppose you think that what you were hearing was the truth, when in fact it was merely a set of…”

“Oh, can it, Pox,” I said. “We both know what’s true.”

Such intense hatred shot from his eyes that it seemed to light up the skin where his eyebrows should have been. “So. I suppose you’re laughing at me now. I suppose you think you’re better than me.”

“Actually, no. I feel kind of sorry for you, but I understand."

You…feel sorry for me?” he hissed. He whipped another weapon from his lab coat, kind of a tuning fork with a tiny radar screen on top of it, and leveled it at me. “A pox on you!”

I barely had to time to realize that I would never get another look at his comic book collection when he pulled the trigger and everything turned white.

When I came to, I was slumped against the wall on the same street corner where I’d nearly bumped into Pox Pascal hours ago. For a bleary moment, I was conscious of my disappointment that heaven looked just like the corner of 42nd and Geary, but then I realized that I hadn’t actually died. And lest I should think the whole thing was a dream, there was a large, hand-scrawled note pinned to my shirt: “Someday, Will Jones, you will see that Pox Pascal can detect twice the shit you ever could! Ha ha! Signed, Pox Pascal.”

I thought, “Good luck, you sad-assed gink,” and went home to write.

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