After school, Dewey Kehoe flies around the basement rescuing people.
This is, of course, after he sheds the day. Dewey debuses in front of his house at 3:40 each afternoon. He walks carefully up the driveway, trying not to jiggle, pretending he doesn’t hear the taunts that follow him from the bus’s windows.
“Look, Dewey’s started a butt-quake!”
“Hey Dewey, sweat much?”
“Cretins,” Dewey mutters, fishing his keys from his pocket.
The bus wheezes a little further down the street to spit out the next tangle of sociopaths. They are ten, the same age as Dewey, but once released to the custody of their lawns, they never invite him to play. They are alien creatures, from an alternate dimension — maybe Earth Two or the Phantom Zone. They vibrate on an entirely different frequency, and they can be dangerous. Dewey doesn’t quite understand why, but obeys this instinct in the manner of a smoke-blind animal fleeing a brush fire.
Inside the house, Dewey turns on the television and hurries to the rear living room window. The lots beyond his backyard — the ones that face the next street over — are empty of houses. They are home instead to enormous high tension towers. The towers are strangely humanoid-shaped, their lattices and braces resembling a broad-backed torso, and their arms support thick, black power lines that hum ominously. Dewey shivers a little at the sight and closes the drapes, darkening the room.
Next, to the kitchen! He grabs his favorite bowl — the one that balances nicely on his stomach when he’s slung over the crushed-velvet couch. The milk is de-fridged. Then comes a dash to the cupboard with the urgency of a junkie prepping his kit.
Mom works until five and has compensated for her after-school absence by placing him under the care of Captain Crunch and Count Chocula. Dewey thinks that the TV commercials for those cereals, as plentiful in the after-school hours as Afghan poppies, are frikkin’ moronic. (Especially Super Sugar Crisp’s Sugar Bear, with his creepy, sucrose-slurred Dean Martin patter.) But the products themselves — perfection.
Dewey’s running late today. He barely makes it to the couch before the show starts. The show, the one that fuels his dreams.
The Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves.
“Faster than a speeding bullet –” Pa-whing! “More powerful than a locomotive –” Chugachugachuga…” Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound –” Whoosh!
As Sugar Bear’s fingers massage away the tensions of the day, Dewey sinks into the show like a Tibetan yogi into meditation.
Dewey has no illusions. He knows that he’s a nerd. But somewhere in his mind, Dewey suspects that he might be a special kind of nerd. One whose corrective shoes and double-knit slacks from the husky section of McKelvey’s are but a thin veneer, masking a deeper identity. A kind of nerd who — like a certain mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper — might transform into something entirely different.
Something brave. Something bold.
Dewey doesn’t know why he thinks this. It’s not like when you suspect it’s going to rain. It’s a special kind of suspicion, from a part of his mind that he has poetically dubbed the Fortress of Solitude. He can’t predict them, these special suspicions — they’re not things one can control. In truth, Dewey doesn’t reflect on them much at all. Everybody must have a place in their brain like that, he figures. A deep and private place that one instinctively keeps secret. A place that sometimes sparks and hums like a generator.
Here in 1970, poor Mr. Reeves is already eleven years dead, having proven in real life to be somewhat less than bullet-proof. But thanks to the miracle of reruns, he still haunts the skies of Metropolis with his trademark flying whoosh: the whoosh that presages disaster for villains. The thugs actually hear this whoosh, seconds before he bursts through the wall or sails through the window. Dewey loves the fact that they never wise up about the whoosh. You’d think word would get around. “If you hear a whoosh, run like frikkin’ hell!” But the bad guys always stand there, looking befuddled. It tickles Dewey pink.
Dewey’s Superman period happens to coincide with Dad’s drinking period. It’s not as bad as it could be; through the sheer force of Mom’s will, Dad’s drinking has been contained solely to Friday nights. It is a weekend spectacle that consists of Dad standing alone in the kitchen, smoking Kools, drinking Schlitz beer and sipping cheap whiskey. For some reason, he never sits at the table. He just stands by the sink, drinking, smoking, and muttering at the cabinets.
Sometimes Dad’s muttering becomes curses directed at Mom. She is, after all, a force of nature. Anyone in their right mind must obey her. The alternative is to be worn down by never-ending erosive forces, the way wind and water carved the Grand Canyon. But at night, fueled by multiple doses of Old Granddad, repressed frustration can boil outward. When this happens, Dewey, his mother and his brother all stay in the big bedroom with the door locked. Brother sleeps. Two years younger, he is constructed differently than Dewey. What hits Dewey like holy fire rolls right off Christopher’s back. So Christopher sleeps while Dewey lies awake listening to Dad pace downstairs like an animal testing its cage. It has never resulted in real violence — Dad’s unhappiness is of the impotent and flailing variety, not the type which curls hands into fists. But it’s still scary enough for Mom to lock the door. Just in case, as newsman Perry White sometimes says, there’s a new development.
Mom always makes Dad apologize the next day at breakfast. He does so, tears in his red-cataract eyes, booze reeking from his pores. It becomes a routine: on Friday night Dewey despises his father for drinking, and on Saturday morning he despises his mother for shaming the man.
All in all, as childhood traumas go, it’s not very heavy-weight. But Dewey is not normal, like his brother. Dewey is constructed of super-absorbent material.
On this particular afternoon, Young Jimmy Olsen is expressing doubt to Clark Kent that he could ever be heroic like Superman. Clark, with a secret, amused look on his face, responds that super strength isn’t required; helping someone in need, even helping an old lady across the street, makes you a hero.
Dewey thinks about this. He’s never helped anyone. Geez! If he’s going to become a hero, he’d better get started…
Later, when Mom comes home and is putting away her coat, she hears Dewey noises — from below. She pads down into the unfinished basement, stopping halfway to peer between the risers.
This is what she sees:
Dewey walks around the basement, a newspaper tucked under his arm. He’s removed the plastic nose from a pair of cheap gag glasses and is now wearing the black frames. He waves a greeting at some invisible person, like he’s out strolling. Suddenly, he freezes. His head cocks sideways. His brow beetles like he’s heard something alarming. He runs to the door of the utility room, gives a quick backward glance, then tears off his glasses and vaults inside. A moment later he bursts forth, transformed. A towel is tied around his neck, its frayed edges majestic in the air. A whoosh comes from his mouth and he “flies” around the room, arms outstretched.
His mother watches, while her love blossoms into new and unseen shapes.
To her, it’s play.
To Dewey, it’s practice.
Dewey’s sessions eventually expand beyond the confines of his basement. It turns out that the Wellsian towers behind his house are really alien death machines, bent on disintegrating human DNA. And Dewey’s the only hero around! So while his neighbors flee screaming, Dewey mounts a desperate solo assault.
“Excelsior!” he cries, and hurtles forth to save the world.
Dewey’s stock of props also expands: A second-hand typewriter for his reporter secret identity. A clip-on tie and jacket. Blue-tinctured long johns with a felt “S” glued to the chest.
Most importantly, the towel is retired in favor of a red silk cape custom-ordered by the elephant-eared proprietor of Mitner’s Costume Shop downtown. This is only after a protracted negotiation with Dewey himself. Mr. Mitner wants Dewey to settle for the black cape that he already has in stock. Special orders are a pain in the ass.
“You can be a magician!”
Dewey’s brother Christopher likes magic. Dewey does not. “I’m a superhero.”
“You could wear a top hat, and look, I have all these tricks. The disappearing coin, the flowers from a wand, the deck of cards!”
“Mister, I don’t want to be a magician.”
“How about Dracula? Ooh, scary! Check out these plastic fangs!”
Dewey looks at his mother. Plastic fangs? What the frik?
She shrugs. “He’s a superhero.”
Irritated, Mitner is about to suggest that Dewey’s mom order the damned cape from one of the big shops in Pittsburgh or Cleveland. But he stops abruptly, a vacant look in his eyes.
Dewey feels a vibration. Subliminal, almost imperceptible. The air in the room has acquired an ozone-like tang, like the charged atmosphere right before a storm. It feels as though every atom in the room is trembling in anticipation.
Dewey knows what this is. The heavy door of the Fortress is swinging open. He’s getting a suspicion. A special suspicion.
Dewey suspects that Mr. Mitner will change his mind.
“I’m a superhero,” he says again quietly.
The empty expression leaves Mitner. A smile snaps across his face, like a thrown switch.
“It’ll be here in two weeks.” Mitner has a sudden, irrational urge to tussle Dewey’s red mop of hair. He thinks, What the frik?
Dewey’s suspicions are as random and wild as the gusts of wind that rustle the willow down by the pond. So he smiles at his luck that one should happen exactly when he needed it.
A month later, on a March afternoon when the crocuses along the driveway have begun to muscle their purple heads past the snow, Dewey’s ritual of cereal and Superman is abruptly ended. Superman does not honor his appointed rendezvous. Worse, he sends as his replacement some skinny buffoon named Gilligan.
Dewey’s face darkens as he watches Gilligan run into a palm tree. What the frik?
Mom calls WYTV to find out why her baby has been disappointed. “Lady, we showed them all,” says the broadcast assistant, sucking his teeth. “They didn’t make any more.”
Dewey receives the news stoically. That night, lying in bed, he stares at the ceiling his father repainted last spring. Dad is not the best painter. Dewey traces where each clumsy brush stroke begins and stops, overlapping but never quite blending properly.
That’s how life is, Dewey thinks, in a particularly grown-up moment. Imperfect moments that, no matter how hard you try, you’re never able to blend quite right.
It was easy to fix a ceiling. You just needed a second coat. Why couldn’t you give life a second coat, too? To correct all the blemishes from the first try, to unify everything into a seamless, endless stroke?
Dewey rolls over onto his side. The Gilligan dilemma — that was a perfect example. There must be a way to blend that away.
He closes his eyes. It’ll work out, he thinks, as dreams reach out to claim him and the room softly begins to tremble. I have a feeling.
The next day, Dewey settles into soft, green crushed velvet. He’s decided to give Gilligan another chance. Maybe the story won’t be as stupid this time.
Unfortunately, the Professor (supposedly a genius) is trying to make a radio out of a coconut. Ginger, the movie star, is running around in an ankle-length evening gown, despite the fact that she now lives on a desert island. Dewey snorts in disgust and is about to turn off the set when a noise — a sound effect — comes from the TV.
It couldn’t be.
It just couldn’t be.
It’s a whoosh.
The castaways hear it, too. Gilligan and Mary Ann look around, puzzled. The Howells dash from their huts, startled out of their afternoon siestas. Then the Skipper points a fat finger above the uppermost fronds, and says, “Look! Up in the sky!”
“It’s a bird!” yells Lovie.
The Professor, exasperated as usual, says, “No, it’s a plane!”
And just like that, George frikkin’ Reeves lands in front of them, his red boots kicking up sand, his cape settling majestically against his back. He puts his hands on his hips and adopts his trademark wide-legged stance, smiling wryly at the stunned castaways. “Anybody need a lift?”
Dewey is not aware that he has leapt to his feet and sent Lucky Charms spewing across the living room.
Dewey knows every television appearance that George Reeves ever made — even the 1950s commercials for Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks with Perry White. (“Great Caesar’s ghost! Doesn’t Jimmy know I can’t work without a good breakfast??”) Dewey is certain that Reeves never made a guest appearance on Gilligan’s Island. For heaven’s sake, he died five years before it premiered!
Nevertheless, as Dewey stands there, frozen as Lot’s wife, Superman rescues the survivors of the S.S. Minnow. Flies them right back to Honolulu, one by one. Ginger purrs and coos mid-flight, her arms wrapped around her hero’s neck. She wants to be loved by him, boo boo be doo. Then the credits roll, for the first and only time without the famous closing song that invites the viewers to join them here each week, my friend.
Dewey stands there immobile for a full minute.
“Well,” he says finally, his voice booming out across the puddle of 2% milk on the carpet. “That’s that!”
That is that. The next day, school is abuzz with the news. And because Gilligan has reached his spectacular (and highly-rated) conclusion, The Adventures of Superman returns the next afternoon in all its glory, starting right back with the first episode: Superman’s origin story.
By sixth grade, Dewey wears thick glasses (real ones), thick braces, thick corrective shoes, has thick red hair and freckles. His bulk is stuffed into polyester slacks (blue jeans and sneakers are not allowed at Boardman Middle School) and fake satin shirts that his Mom admires but are hot and show his pit stains. Walking down a crowded hall between classes is an exercise in excruciating self-consciousness. He’s aware of every ungainly motion his body makes. He can scarcely breathe owing to how he’s trying to suck his gut in. Everyone just must be looking at his ass. Often gibes and snickers escort him to his next class. In fact, Dewey is so self-conscious that he studies other kids just to know what to do with his hands.
The sense of being different is terrifying and confusing. His classmates love the Cleveland Indians, Three’s Company and Brownsville Station. He likes chess, Isaac Asimov and Beethoven. They go to Little League. He lies on his bed and reads Doc Savage and Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar.
He dreads the post-gym class shower in the locker room. Often he changes back into his street clothes sans shower and goes sweaty to his next class, where it takes him half the period to cool down. (Being sweaty in class is, of course, its own kind of embarrassment.)
Being so inherently different tends to take its toll on interpersonal skills. For instance, Dewey always gets a 100% on his spelling quizzes. One day his homeroom teacher, Ms. Santofani (fresh from student-teaching, bless her heart) asks him in front of the class why this is so.
Dewey replies, “I read the dictionary every night.”
Now, this is not true. But Dewey’s social instinct is so vestigial that he actually thinks this will impress his classmates. Instead, it earns him a helping of mac-n-cheese on his head at lunch.
Dewey is a natural internalizer. The idea of taking action to change his circumstances simply never occurs to him. It never occurs to him to put down the UFO magazine and pick up a basketball. Or to stand up to a bully. And no adult ever offers guidance. His father occasionally wants to, but after the miscarriages, Dewey is the joyful answer to his mother’s prayers, and her fiercely protective gratitude forbids it. So although Dewey may stand in the shower, praying for God to take away his fat, he never once considers going on a diet.
At the first class get-together of the sixth grade school year, the gym teacher discusses their goals. “And Keyhoe,” he says, “this year we’re gonna get that weight off you.” The boys snicker, but inside, Dewey is secretly thrilled to think that someone will help him! But the teacher, having a basketball championship to win, never mentions it again. And anyway, Dewey must often be excused from gym. Asthma.
So he lives in his head where it’s safe, doodles space ships in his notebooks and freezes in resigned despair when his tormentors come scowling and banging lockers down the hall.
Until seventh grade, that is. Until Chet Upson.
Whereas Dewey is constructed of super-absorbent material, Chet is all fast-twitch muscle fiber. Chet is compressed and sinewy, like beef jerky. Tanned and toughened by an alcoholic father with expressive hands, he’s a natural bully. His dense gravity quickly attracts lesser satellites, boys who have been waiting for an excuse to express their own rage.
Recently expelled from the Catholic school across town, Chet’s looking for someone on whom to take out his resentment at being born. He stalks the school, mentally culling the herd. He’s looking for the crippled sheep in the fold.
And no one’s more crippled than Dewey.
Scowlers and locker bangers are a paper cut, a thing you whine over. Chet is a severed finger, a thing you look at in horror and disbelief. Chet doesn’t taunt, he punches you in the face. Your doughy cheeks makes him apoplectic with fury, and he wants to see if the broken shards of your glasses can be driven into the soft jelly of your eye.
So Dewey is tripped in the hall, body-slammed to the polished hardwood of the basketball court during dodge ball, and shoved down the metal stairs next to the shop. These are serious storms to be sure, but until that Thursday, Dewey has managed to stay out of the path of a full-blown hurricane.
That Thursday after school, Chet catches Dewey alone outside. Just off the playground, there’s a narrow brick cul de sac between the band room and the main body of the school. Chet has been waiting here for Dewey, who’s stayed late hanging banners for the chess team tournament. The student body has already been spirited away in their yellow lozenges. The teachers’ parking lot is deserted.
Chet boils out from this brick gauntlet as Dewey passes and grabs him by his shirt collar. Dewey only manages to bleat an “ulp!” before he is thrown deep into the windowless alley. Here, the afternoon sun has been replaced by burnt orange shadows.
Dewey sees the look on Chet’s face. He has a moment of pure, animal terror.
Then, quite abruptly, he has a suspicion.
Dewey might describe an emanation from the Fortress of Solitude as a feeling that something both is and isn’t at the same time. It’s very disorienting. Two realities, equally true, just for a moment.
Dewey knows that he is about to be beaten to a bloody pulp. He also knows that Chet will go away.
The choice of which path to take seems already made for him.
There is a
and then an
When he gets home, Dewey’s so confused, drained and nauseated that he crawls right into bed, without television and without supper — and Dewey never misses supper.
The next day, in science class, Chet’s chair is occupied by the skinny black-haired girl who picks at her shoulders. Mr. Odenkirk doesn’t call Chet’s name for attendance. After fifty minutes of trying to concentrate on chlorophyll, pistils and stamens, Dewey hangs back from his departing classmates and asks Mr. Odenkirk whether Chet Upson is sick.
“Who’s Chet Upson?” Mr. Odenkirk says. “Is he transferring to our school?”
Dewey goes to the boy’s bathroom. Two JDs are huddled by the window next to the urinal, sucking at their contraband smokes. They hustle out upon seeing Dewey. Dewey goes into a stall and locks the door. He doesn’t notice the gargantuan, spurting Magic Marker penises drawn on the inside, and the “for a good time call Dewey Keyhoe” inscription that features his telephone number.
He throws up into the toilet.
His head is a kaleidoscope, his face a conflagration. There’s a terrible cracking, like a walnut being crushed. It’s his head, he thinks. His head must be splitting in two.
One part of his mind says, Chet was my first super villain. And I defeated him! Banished him to the Phantom Zone!
No, another terrified part says. You can’t allow this to be. You can’t control it.
His trembling hand flips the handle to flush the toilet.
Dewey sees the face of the Fortress of Solitude. It’s not that silly pile of crystalline pick-up-sticks from the Christopher Reeve movies: this is a bastion carved from the sheer face of an Arctic cliff, like in the original comics, with a monstrous door and a man-sized keyhole.
Make it just your imagination! Believe that it was just your imagination. Make it not real!
He pushes it back, back, back. Back inside. The door slams shut with an awful roar. For the first time he turns the lock. The door’s seams freeze over and an icy crust obliterates them from view. There is now only ancient, glaciated rock, as if the door had never existed. And finally, even that fades as the winter squall scrubs all vision down to a blinding white pin-point. Then…nothing.
There will be no more suspicions. No more.
It’s time for Dewey to grow up.
Dewey survives high school, tries and fails at college, lives terrified in a studio apartment in Brooklyn for a while, gets fed up with being pushed around by the cockroaches, and comes home. He works at a series of jobs then trains at the local technical institute to become an electrical engineer. He marries a local girl, Janice. He had a high school crush on Janice but of course she ignored him. They reconnect at a party during one of Dewey’s periods of lesser weight, and he’s amazed that she now finds him marginally acceptable. He instantly falls for her. It’s less love than gratitude, but still, it’s something.
Twenty-five years go by.
In 2005, Dewey gets laid off from Willard Electric. This is national news, because Willard’s executives have been playing interesting games with the books, creating shell companies to hide their debt while Lear-jetting around the world.
Dewey and his wife start struggling. Like everyone else in town. Youngstown, Ohio has been the pits since the 1970s when the steel mill closed on the day remembered shudderingly as Black Monday.
Dewey clearly remembers this day, because he was engaged in a Batman comic marathon. Batman: his second-favorite superhero. Like Superman, he never killed (although he wasn’t beyond beating a criminal to a pulp). A detective, Batman used brains as well as brawn. Dewey wished the 1960s television show had taken the character more seriously. The “Holy Bat — [insert noun here]!” phrases that Robin uttered were particularly infuriating. As were the Batclimb Cameos, where guest stars stuck their heads out the window as the Dynamic Duo scaled a building. (Colonel Klink?? Lurch from the Addams Family?? WHAT THE FRIK!!) Still, the series’ Batmobile, with its futuristic bubble windshield, fins and flaming jet engine exhaust, was undoubtedly the coolest car ever created.
That day, Dewey was reading his comics and thinking about how seedy and crime-ridden Gotham City was, and how nice Youngstown was. A superhero wouldn’t have much to do in Youngstown. Which was a shame. Then came the special report: U.S. Sheet and Tube (the largest employer in the city) would be closing. And Dewey thought, maybe Youngstown will end up like Gotham…maybe it will need a superhero after all!
One of the original steel towns, Youngstown’s blast furnaces had made the steel that won the war. Back then, environmental laws weren’t even a dream yet. Dewey’s mother told stories of soot on the walls of their house. Of little drifts of steel dust in the street. Once she got some in her eye and the doctor had to remove it with a magnet.
Now, thirty years later, there’s a black cloud that just won’t go away. The once-nice immigrant neighborhoods are run-down crack holes and the middle class has fled to service jobs in the suburbs.
Laid off, Dewey looks for work and finds nothing of substance. Now he works two part-time jobs and Janice works two part-time jobs. They come home with deep fryer oil burns on their arms, and they don’t look each other in the eye much anymore.
Dewey expands; Janice shrinks. She zoomed past gaunt last year and is now officially death camp. Each bite she takes seems to require a heroic act of will.
Maybe it’s the variable-rate clause in their mortgage that has suddenly kicked in, like a buried piece of kryptonite. It rockets their payments up three hundred percent. One day Dewey comes home stinking of special sauce to find Janice at the dining room table, mortgage statement in her hand, her open mouth shock-frozen like a tar pit mummy.
The house he’s losing is his parents’ house. Its beige aluminum siding (siding that in the ’70s they said would last forever) was painted last year because it had faded to a wormy mottle the exact hue and texture of an old woman’s hand. Even afterward it looks like the trashy cousin you “forget” to invite to family cook-outs.
Once his father got sick, the family was forced to take out a new mortgage to pay for a first-floor bedroom and bath, since his father absolutely refused to move to assisted living.
Dewey’s Dad was a community banker during the Golden Age, when banks were locally owned and the branch manager knew everybody in town and deals were based on character and relationships and not a computer score. Dewey’s Dad put in twenty-five years and was the poster boy of corporate dedication (rising from janitor to Assistant Vice President). Had he lived, Remington — the new super-bank that bought Dad’s bank, a bank with over half a trillion dollars in assets — would’ve canceled Dad’s free lifetime checking and cut his pension.
This is the bank Dewey’s in now. Their slogan: “It’s about you.”
Dewey remembers when banks were marble edifices with expansive lobbies and high ceilings and tellers cages that invoked a church-like feeling of reverence. And foot-thick metal vault doors that looked almost Magneto-proof.
This bank, however, looks distinctly fast food.
Dewey listens to Ron, the assistant manager, explain the time bomb in their mortgage. “It’s right here on page 23, paragraph nine, subparagraph six,” says Ron. “You read this before you signed it, right?”
Dewey hesitates. He read it, but he didn’t, like, read it.
“Let’s see,” says Ron to the computer screen. “A month behind. Not a disaster. Let’s update your file, why don’t we?”
Dewey’s neck reddens. Don’t sweat, he thinks.
Dewey went to school with Ron. Ron used to make the class laugh with tales of Dewey’s hilarious asthma attacks when he tried to run laps in the stadium. Ron pokes a key. “Current family employment?”
Burger King, Home Depot, Taco Bell and Sir Wash-A-Lot Laundromat. Total yearly income: $26,000.
“Any other assets? CDs, IRAs, stocks, anything of value?”
Dewey thinks about his comic collection, then says,”No.”
“And your credit rating… Whoa. Ouch.”
It’s mid-afternoon, but the light seems to be fading. A grayness is creeping in.
Ron laces his fingers across a ketchup stain on his shirt. “A variable-rate mortgage is for people who don’t have cash up front but expect to be more liquid in a few years. Otherwise,” he pauses to chuckle, “it wouldn’t have been prudent.”
“Can you work with me until I’m on my feet?”
“We go way back, don’t we, buddy?” Ron’s canines flash under the fluorescent lights. “But the bank ties my hands.”
The grayness thickens.
“You can’t do anything?”
Ron’s sorrowful smile is beatific, like the statue of a Christian martyr. “If it was just me…”
It’s a stifling pressure. It’s the atmosphere on Jupiter.
“Are you making a payment today? You’re behind $724.21.”
Dewey dry-swallows. “That much already?”
“Well, there’s late fees. And, oh — you have a VISA card with us, right? Your interest rates will go up.”
“But I haven’t missed a credit card payment!”
“The missed mortgage payment will change your credit score. That will trigger paragraph 6 subparagraph 37 in your VISA contract and raise the rate to 29.9%.”
Dewey needs air. There’s not enough air. Maybe oxygen is too expensive. Maybe it’s for employees only, like the rest room.
“Okay,” he says. “Thank you.”
“No prob.” Ron hands him a slip. “You can pay this at the teller’s window.”
The print is too small to read. “Pay?”
“The live person fee. Online banking is free, but to speak to a live person, there’s an $8.00 fee.” Ron smiles again. “Nice to see you again, buddy. And thanks for banking with Remington. Remember, it’s about you.”
He’s losing his wife.
His parents stayed together for fifty-five years. They weren’t any happier than Dewey and Janice were, but by God, that’s just what you did.
Divorce. Dewey can’t quite get his mind around it. But it comes down the hall anyway, scowling and banging lockers.
Of all the things Janice hates about Dewey, she hates his comics the most. Each is sheathed in a special sleeve made from inert Mylar archival polystyrene — the same kind used by the Library of Congress. They are stored in white, stackable cardboard boxes. Dewey maintains a spreadsheet that lists every issue, collated by title, year, artist and genre.
They get in Janice’s way when she’s doing laundry. Once she deliberately knocks over boxes 12-14: Action Comics, May 1970-1976, “Kryptonite No More” to the end of the fabulous “Sand Superman” run.
“I feel like I’m married to a child,” she says. “Who still has their Captain Action figure from when they’re six? Do you see my Barbie’s anywhere?” Dewey smiles to himself. How could anyone possibly compare Captain Action with Barbie?
His collection has become quite valuable. After hinting, then asking, then pleading, Janice finally lays down the law (in much the same way his mother did). Dewey will sell his comics to help pay the mortgage.
Janice finally discovers that it’s already too late when she stumbles across the foreclosure notice hidden under Dewey’s socks in his dresser. He walks into the bedroom just as she’s reading it. He watches while her face just kind of…settles.
A week later, Dewey is reading the Vindicator and trying to ignore the smell that has seeped everywhere. The rotten, end-time smell of bottled up resentment and frustration. The Vindy, once a great metropolitan newspaper, is twelve pages.
Janice stops halfway down the steps, her anorexic hand resting on the banister. It is the exact hue and texture of the aluminum siding before Dad had it painted.
Even though he’s never seen this particular look before on her face, Dewey immediately knows what it means.
He won’t let his terror take root. He drops his terror right into the open pages of the Vindicator, right onto the illegible society page. He closes the paper. He’ll dispose of his terror later with the rest of the recyclables.
Dewey tries to think of some wonderful memory they have shared, some picnic by a beautiful stream, or a trip to Paris. He can’t think of anything. So he sits there, looking at the stark planes of her face as she crosses to him.
She drops the attorney’s papers into his lap, right on top of the newspaper, takes the keys to the Econoliner and walks out the door.
“Oh, well,” says Dewey, splitting apart from the inside out. “That’s that.”
He’s on the basement floor surrounded by his comic books.
Dewey’s favorites are the Golden Age comics of the late thirties and forties. These heroes are the real deal. Dewey doesn’t want modern, angst-ridden, troubled heroes. He doesn’t need a Captain America who’s disgusted with his country. Or a Spider-man who’s a post-pubescent train wreck. He doesn’t like it when “cutting-edge” writers turn Batman into a twisted semi-psychopath or Superman into a dumb pawn of the military. I already know the world is screwed up, thinks Dewey. The superheroes are supposed to save it.
One of the few things he does like is when the new writers expand his heroes’ origin stories. They were pretty abbreviated in those early days — Superman’s 1938 origin in Action Comics #1 was a single page! But over the decades, the original tales were fleshed out, with subsequent writers adding detail and, thankfully, ditching the stupider parts.
Dewey was thrilled to read more about the events on Krypton before Jor-el sends his infant son into space to save him from destruction. Or young Clark’s discovery of his powers (which now manifest after puberty — none of that Superboy nonsense). Or Batman’s early days, with the terrible murder of his parents outside the opera house now even more chilling and evocative. His early crime-fighting attempts. His early alliance with Jim Gordon.
It’s good to rewrite parts that don’t work, that don’t make sense. It’s okay to give them a second coat of paint if it fixes the blemishes and deepens the mythology.
There’s nothing wrong with a reboot.
Dewey thinks about these things before he falls asleep every night on the cold basement floor, looking at Dad’s unblended paint strokes on the ceiling. In the basement where he once rescued people. Back then, pretty girls were always getting into scrapes. Their innocence made them vulnerable, like butterflies alighting into tree sap.
Down here, in this room, he knew without a doubt that he was going to become something strong. But he got whittled away somehow, piece by piece. He never saw it coming. It was like the old story about the frog: throw it in boiling water and it’ll jump right out. But put it in lukewarm water and slowly raise the temperature, it’ll just sit there, gradually cooking.
Creeping calamities like divorce, firings, foreclosures, disease — sure, they’re awful, but they’re also…well, they’re ordinary horrors, aren’t they? Pedestrian. The whole world goes through those things. No one becomes a hero because of life’s everyday afflictions.
No, the dark moments just hadn’t been dramatic enough. Not extreme enough in that unique superhero way.
Dewey is so immersed in these thoughts that he doesn’t notice the vibration.
Heroes always had some galvanizing moment that propelled them into their destiny. A horrible tragedy, a freakish event. Peter Parker, bitten by a radioactive spider. Bruce Banner, transformed by gamma rays into the Hulk.
Unconsciously, Dewey hums under his breath in tune to the rumbling. There is creaking; great releasing gasps of frozen tension.
Massive veins of ice shear away.
Had Bruce Wayne not seen his parents’ murder, he wouldn’t have become Batman. Had Kal-el’s planet not been destroyed, he wouldn’t have become Superman. Had they not been forged in the crucible of those supreme horrors, they would have ended up, well, like Dewey.
Light sneaks through the seams of the immense door. The ice has crumbled away.
No, Dewey reflects sorrowfully, what he really had needed back then was something truly terrible.
The swirls of paint on the ceiling are shimmering.
There had be a way to make everything blend together right, to unify all into a seamless, endless, blemish-less stroke of time.
Dewey shuts his eyes, more exhausted than he has ever been. It’ll work out, he thinks, as sleep reaches out to claim him. I have a feeling.
There is a
and then an
Eleven year-old Dewey Keyhoe has just visited the drugstore down the street, the one that smells of talcum and baseball card bubble-gum and has three comic racks instead of one. Dewey bikes home with empty pockets and a basket full of Batman. Dad frowns at this waste of his allowance, but a blast of arctic air from Mom mutes him.
That night Dewey falls asleep with his head full of the Caped Crusader and, unfortunately, the annoying Boy Wonder. (Dewey has a pet peeve against sidekicks.)
He’s awoken at 3:26 am by the sounds of choking. Dewey looks to the other bed. Christopher’s page-boy hair gleams in the moonlight, his arms wrapped around a red stuffed dog with a secret name that for some reason he will not share with anyone.
Dewey hears the sound again. A muffled half-sob, half-gurgle. It’s coming from downstairs.
Through the open door, he can see the hall: the rounded edge of the banister’s handrail and simple white newels. On the wall is the Mona Lisa, courtesy his Aunt Louis via the Louvre gift shop in Paris, France. The only illumination comes from a plastic nightlight that serves both to mark the path for nocturnal toilet excursions and to banish boogie men. In its faint glow, Mona’s smile has never been more inscrutable.
There are two kinds of sounds: sounds that are right, and sounds that are wrong. The sounds coming from below could not be more wrong — they are the kind of sounds that activate the deepest limbic parts of the brain, that dump adrenalin into the bloodstream by the bucketful, that bring one’s darkest fears rushing forward. To a child like Dewey, these fears are of aliens and werewolves, or perhaps (despite the fact that it’s a Thursday) a new development in Dad’s drinking. But they are as paralyzing as an adult’s worst nightmares, so it is to Dewey’s credit that he forces himself to tiptoe out into the hall.
His fluttering heart tries to reassure him that the noises downstairs must be his parents. But what could they be doing this late at night?
He cranes his neck over the railing. Only a sliver of the living room below is visible. A shadow moves. There’s a noise like a sack being dragged across the carpet. Dewey stays frozen for several minutes, his ears straining, until he finally loses patience with himself. He can’t go back to bed and listen anxiously to the shadows all night. That would be hell. So he chides his fear into action. What would Captain America do? Dewey slips around the landing and descends halfway down the stairs to peer through the balustrade.
This is what he sees:
Mom is on the carpet next to the fireplace. She is already dead. Her face is covered by an enormous amount of blood. More blood has spread beneath her, in a pool that engulfs the legs of the coffee table. Her matted nightgown clings to her form. It reveals, in more detail than a little boy is comfortable with, the shape of her breasts and pubic mound.
Two men, dressed in leather jackets and watch caps, stand directly in front of the television. They are killing his father. One stands behind his father, holding him in a choke hold. The other man inserts and extracts a switchblade from his father’s abdomen. Dewey recognizes the switchblade — it is a weapon of choice for comic book villains.
Dewey has only a moment to process this alien sight when there is a gasp from behind him. Christopher rushes past him down the steps, right into the thick of things, screaming for his mother. He drops the stuffed red dog halfway down, and it bounces once, improbably, into Dewey’s lap. The man with the switchblade turns, and with one arm snatches Christopher up into the air as easily as lifting a sack of groceries. Christopher’s pajamas have feet, and these kick and pump like he’s riding a bicycle in mid-air as he howls, but the man’s grip is absolute. The other man releases his father, who slides to the floor while making a truly terrible noise, and this man fixes his eyes on the staircase.
That’s all he remembers. When he awakes hours later, the house is full of policemen and his entire family is dead.
The killers are never caught, nor does there appear to be any motive besides robbery. The term “home invasion” hasn’t been coined yet.
As childhood traumas go, it’s pretty frikkin’ awful.
Thirty years later -– now -– today — this very morning, in fact: Dewey awakens on the basement floor.
Something is horribly wrong. Everything is horribly wrong.
Alarm sizzles through him. He jumps up.
It’s his well-honed sixth sense of danger. He trusts it implicitly — it’s gotten him out of countless scrapes in the past.
He looks around his lair for a moment, reorienting himself. He races to a bookcase on the far wall. His fingers slip behind a hardcover anthology of Swamp Thing comics (the really amazing Alan Moore ones) and press a hidden stud. The bookcase swings back. His hidden storeroom. He throws a quick glance behind him to make sure he’s not being observed, then tears off his glasses and vaults inside.
A moment later he bursts forth, transformed. His massive biceps, slab-like chest and crenellated abdomen are barely contained by the fabric of his uniform. The emblem on his chest — a silver streak of lightning — glows with supernatural intensity. He flexes his hands within thick gloves and adjusts his cowl —- a stylized jagged bolt of energy that covers his forehead and eyes. His cape billows behind him, majestic.
No matter how dire the circumstances that call him forth, Captain Thunderbolt always feels a thrill of exhilaration when he sheds his alter ego and become the hero he truly is.
He climbs the basement steps and peers out the back door. The patio, the yard, all look normal…beyond is —No! He races outside, his boots skimming so fast across the mucky March ground that they leave no imprint, past the fence, into the empty lot.
The metal monstrosities are four stories tall.
Dear God! he thinks. They’re creating some kind of web over the entire neighborhood! An energy prison! Once these web-lines are complete, we’ll be trapped beneath them!
People are running, screaming. A robot raises its steel foot and crushes a fleeing woman. In the comics, you never see the blood, but of course this is real life. Her purple entrails are stuck to the underside of the creature’s foot. The thing scrapes them off on a car. In the distance, sirens rise.
Looking at these creatures, Captain Thunderbolt suspects the world has changed. It’s the strongest suspicion that he’s ever had. It comes boiling out of him like a volcanic eruption, up from the Fortress of Solitude, up from a molten core of the insecurity and isolation and frustration and powerlessness.
There will be no more gray confusion, there will be no fear. There will only be laser-like, resolute purpose.
Captain Thunderbolt thinks back to his parents’ grisly murder, the night that changed his world forever. Had it not happened, he might have remained mild-mannered Dewey Kehoe forever. He might have drifted through life, never finding anything to grasp onto. It was awful to admit, but every hero needs a horrible tragedy.
Every hero needs an origin story.
Captain Thunderbolt can’t quite remember what the world was like before today, but he knows what it is now. It is world of super-villains, alien invasions and one-eyed monsters. It is a world of killer robots and fantastic weapons and mad scientists bent on world domination.
And it is a world of heroes. With powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. He will have allies, other heroes to help him when terrible death beams devastate whole countries, when innocent people are enslaved by super-intelligent gorillas.
But right now, it’s up to him.
With a whoosh, he hurtles forward to save the world.