This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
In a marble notebook, Alex Henson writes the names of the places on the exit signs. Below each, he spells the name out backwards. He reads them aloud, quietly, so he doesn’t distract his mother from driving. Collections of random syllables. Impossible strings of consonants. It’s tough work. But finding a magic word ought to be. There are useless abracadabras and hocuspoci lying around everywhere. In the old comics the Idea Man keeps in long boxes in his apartment, kid reporter Brian Bryson spends days in the archives of the Kirby City Library searching a clue to his sister’s disappearance. Eyes bleeding tears behind thick glasses, he stumbles upon the word that, spoken aloud, calls down the lightning and turns him into Captain Wonder, champion of pantheons, imbued with the power of six ancient gods. For his part, Alex had looked up the names and histories of all six gods (along with the words “pantheon” and “imbued”) in various books checked out from the Brooklyn Library, but none of them, said backwards, forwards or sideways, had imbued him with the Wile of Wotan, the Resilience of Ra, or anything in between. “Excelsior!” Alex attempts. If it worked for Brian Bryson, the word might still have a little magic in it, even if the comics were from before Alex was born, their pages yellowed and crisp. The word uttered, he is still a nine year-old boy in the back seat of a Honda Civic, heading away from New York City for the first time in his life. He humphs and returns to his list of potentially transformative words. Pronunciation and emphasis may be the key. “Ac-Aht-I” he says. “Olaf-Fub,” he says. “Oled-Ot,” he says. Nothing. Upstate is a treasure trove. Iroquois names sound magical backwards and
forwards. In Ohio, an inexplicable patch of Spanish names shows promise but fails to deliver. Alex chews the names like gum that refuses to lose its flavor. He asterisks the ones he deems worthy of further investigation. Now and then, his mother checks the rearview and sees his lips forming odd words, but the sounds are drowned out by one sputtering NPR station after another. Alex cannot understand why she can’t have him talking to her while she drives but she can stand the talk radio prattling on endlessly. As the pass from one station to the next, discussions are repeated and Alex’s mother seems to take comfort in this. She laughs at the jokes again, nods with more insistent agreement at opinions she’s already heard. Alex thinks of the interstate as a railway across a green sea. Traveling is the strongest magic word he knows. Nine and already a jaded New Yorker, Alex was happy to see the city in the rear view. But now even as every mile puts him the furthest west he’s ever been, there’s a part of him prepared to go back. On a separate page, he lists some things that will not be as good anywhere else. Bagels. Parks. The whale at the museum. The turret of the Idea Man’s house. Our apartment. Return is supposed to be part of travel’s magic spell. Captain Wonder only has to repeat his magic word and he’s Brian Bryson again, kid reporter and fifth grader at Kirbyville Elementary. Alex has a feeling this spell he and his mother are working is permanent. That they’ve managed to make New York disappear. “O-Gac-Ihc,” he says. Knowing it’s not the word even as he chokes it out. Magic words sound like magic words. Alex puts the notebook on the seat next to him and opens his book. It is about Brooklyn boy who discovers he is a powerful magician. The neighborhoods and streets the book wends through are Alex’s own, and maybe the book is part of the spell. A charm containing all of New York, one he can carry with him across the country. Outside the window, the midwest races away from him.
The Idea Man Alex loves going to see the Idea Man. For one thing, there is the G Train, which has the fantastic ramshackle feeling of a real train instead of the minor rack and jitter of the other subways. There is a roll and shudder to its motion Alex associates with little engines that could and trains departing from the fractional platforms of British rail stations. And when the train settles its drab and New York arrival point, the doors open onto an unlikely mix of lounging young people dressed for a party on the moon, their speech slow bouncing in low gravity arcs, and little old women bustling about hair salons and bakeries, speaking to one another in a rapid alien tongue. The spaceboys ignore Alex, or greet him with the same solemn nod they use to greet each other. The spacegirls point at him and squee. Kids are a rarity on this planet to be coveted and cooed over. The old ladies coo and nod at once. They call him synek, assess the skinniness of his limbs, and cluck before offering him some bit of pastry with sugar glaze polished to a mirror sheen. Alex could walk along the streets of Greenpoint all day, being acknowledged, cooed over, and fed in regular rotation. But they are on what his mother calls a visiting mission. The building where the Idea Man lives looks like it must have been a castle when it was younger. Alex thinks of building as having childhoods and adolescences. He imagines the Idea Man’s building, with its red bricks shedding dust into the stairways and narrow windows looking over the entire neighborhood, had been a fort when it was an angry teenager. It must have matured into a fortress (Alex is unclear on the difference between a fort and a fortress, but the latter sounds more protective, the former more aggressive), then a castle before settling into its current state of retirement. Now it lords over the lunar colony of the neighborhood like an aging Arthur, venerable but out of place, antique and confused. When Alex read the story of Arthur he thought it was one of the saddest stories in the whole world. So when he imagines a story for the Idea Man’s building, he imagines the building quietly content, watching the loitering spacekids and the little old ladies and smiling down on them.
The best thing about visiting missions, though, is that if the Idea Man is having a good day, not one of his crying days, or one of the days his sentences crumble like castles destroyed, the Idea Man might give Alex an idea. A shining seed that births stories and grows into dreams. The trick is in knowing which days it is okay to ask, and which days the Idea Man needs more from Alex than Alex needs from him. This then is the difficultly in ascending the steps of the Idea Man’s castle: being prepared both to give and to receive. ii. Valerie Henson, taller than you expect, leads Alex up the spiral stairs of a turret. He does not need to hold her hand, but he does, and with his other hand keeps the page in the book he is reading. She is wearing her hair its natural copper again, much shorter. Tim warned her this meant she’d be recognized. She countered that only tourists recognize anyone in New York. But this visit is a part of her exit from New York, and the recognisability of her hair is beginning to worry her again. Valerie would describe her weekly visits to Tim in his stronghold at the edge of Brooklyn as check-ins. They are overt signs of her concern for his wellbeing and his togetherness. There is nothing solicitous about the visits, and very little pained about them. But the visits are like speaking to an old friend through a strained phone reception, bits of adjacent radio frequencies interfering. She thinks of the years they worked together as a time that revived the concept of family for her after years of selfimposed estrangement from her own family in Illinois. Tim and Naomi were like the coolest parents in the world; him burbling with stories of bullets shot backwards through time and future selves undoing their own pasts, her the cool head prevailing as the show, which began as a Hail Mary pass lobbed into the dark dregs of the network schedule, became a cult hit and then a hit. Paul, handsome and frustrating in his charm, was the boy next door she tolerated, then grew to like, then to love. And eventually there was Alex, who confirmed and affirmed all of the best things about all of them. There are days she climbs the steps thinking all of that will be behind the door, waiting for her. Bounding up the stairs behind her, impossibly big, Alex silently testifies to all the time passed between then and now. Even if she could give all those years back to
Tim at the cost of turning back some watchspring in her own child, winding him back to a toddler, to an infant, she wouldn’t think of it. Not for a minute. At the top of the stairs, she knocks on the tall oak door, but there is no answer. Alex takes this pause as a chance to return to his book. Valerie is skeptical about this book; its popularity makes it suspect. But their local librarian assures her that there is nothing age inappropriate in it. At Alex’s reading level, there are fewer and fewer books she can find that challenge him as a reader while remaining age appropriate. Valerie dreads the day Alex goes to sleep nine years old and wakes up sixteen, but it is approaching, she knows. “Alex,” she says, “you want to open it?” He hands her his book, turns the knob and puts all of his weight against the door, which creaks and drags open to his obvious delight. Inside, Alan is already hurrying to greet them, obviously distressed he did not arrive promptly at their first knock. A sweet Asian boy who carefully self-corrects his Brooklyn accent, Alan has begun to put on the soft weight common in newlyweds, the way the body relaxes when the importance of the outside world and its eyes becomes of secondary concern. She wonders about the last time Alan went on a date, or out for a drink with friends. “I’m so sorry,” he whispers as he kisses her cheek. “I was going through the Book, cleaning out duplicates and I didn’t hear the door.” “It’s fine, Alan,” she says, holding him in a hug for a moment. “How is he today?” Alan rolls his eyes and sighs dramatically. Valerie had found Alan through a friend in her theater group, and he has been nothing short of a godsend. She was considering taking out a classified in the Village Voice, but the position was impossible to describe and she worried it would somehow “out” Tim, who valued his privacy over almost anything else. When she told Alan over coffee she was looking to hire a combination caretaker, amanuensis, cook, cleaner and occasional therapist for a wonderful, brilliant, but psychologically delicate friend of hers, he paused, sipped his coffee and contemplated. “So you want a Boswell?” he said, and Valerie knew she’d found the man for the job. Three years of live-in service later, Alan was now like a limb to his employer, just as crucial and just as rarely appreciated.
“Val!” comes Tim’s voice from one of the other rooms, part joyful, part panicked. “Alex!” It sounds as if he is lost in his own house, searching for them. Tim emerges in his usual state of half-dress: sweatpants, tee shirt from a long forgotten Cali punk band, one sock. Four decades between him and the last wave he rode have done nothing to pale his surfer tan, and his eyes have lost none of their tricksterous sparkle. The curious phenomenon of his ghostwhite hair is, as always, product-free and defiant, springing like an exclamation point from his pate. “Like Athena from the head of Zeus,” Alex once declared, during the months when he and D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths were inseparable. Alex went on to describe how the hair must be bursting from Tim’s head in super slow motion, and one morning Tim would wake up to find his hair had escaped his forehead and was in the kitchen helping Alan fix breakfast. “I’m so sorry,” Tim says, bowing deeply. “Did you just come in?” “Just now,” says Val. She hugs him diagnostically, feeling for his heart rate, for any noticeable shudders or shakes. “Well good then,” he said. “Aaron hasn’t failed to offer you anything.” “Alan,” corrects Alan. Tim has not bothered to look at him since entering. This is standard for the two of them and generally plays to comic effect, particularly for Alex. Tim sweeps Alex up into his arms and Val is happy to see that this motion is still effortless, despite Alex’s ever increasing size. Tim has always been a big man, broad across the shoulders, but since Naomi’s death his bigness has a hollow sense to it, like Easter chocolate. These little shows of strength comfort her muscles still move beneath the skin. “We’re fine,” Val says. “I’ll have a ginger ale,” says Alex, his arms and his book wrapped around Tim’s shoulders. “Adam,” says Tim, making a summoning motion with his hand. “A ginger ale.” “I don’t think we have any ginger ale,” says Alan. “Well it’s lucky then that we live in the most civilized city in the universe,” says Tim officiously. “Go get the boy a ginger ale.” “I don’t really—” Alex starts. “Tim,” says Val, “he’s fine.”
“Nonsense,” says Tim. “Alan’s been in the house all day. He could use a bit of a walk.” With a nod, he dispatches Alan, the door thudding heavily shut behind him. “But come here, the two of you,” Tim says, leading them into the living room. “I’d offer you snacks but we don’t. Wait, there’s something. A caterer gave me—” The thought scurries away from him. Always aware of his schedule, Valerie knows he made a rare venture out this week, to the set of a show shooting here in New York. Something about doctors at a hospital in the Bronx who solved supernatural mysteries, a castoff idea Tim had a year ago. Alan called her afterwards to say it had gone well. Tim had kept himself so together that one of the producers invited him to come direct an episode some time, an offer Tim graciously declined. She had been warned, though, that Tim had raided the catering table, stuffing all available pockets and then, when Alan gently chided him about stains coagulating on his jacket, claimed the caterer had practically forced the food upon him. “We’re fine,” she says. “I think there are carrots,” says Tim, trying to recall. “Those adorable baby carrots.” “Alex,” Val says. He has already taken the largest chair in the room and is back in his book, but he looks up at the sound of his name. “Can you go check the fridge and see if Tim has carrots? If they’re there—” “They’re mine?” he says excitedly. “Exactly!” The boy folds the book around his finger and goes sprinting towards the kitchen. Val listens to the heavy thunks of his sneakers on hardwood down the hall. “So you’re headed west?” Tim asks her. “I guess I have to,” she says. “Does he know why?” “Not yet.” “You should tell him what’s happening,” says Tim. He lays his hand on hers in a motion that is well meant has something mechanical about it, like they are high schoolers acting in a play. To her relief, the door irks and creaks its way open, then slams shut. “Abraham?” calls Tim.
“Alan,” replies Alan from the doorway. “You have ginger ale?” he asks. “I have it,” says Alan, coming into the living room displaying a can of Schwepps in a spokesmodel pose. “Good, very good,” says Tim. His face crumples like a crushed aluminum can. Val has seen this before, this moment of channeling. It’s these moments that Tim is famous for within the film and television industries. It’s not so much that he comes up with ideas, as that they are broadcast to him from somewhere else. Or that they are being broadcast constantly and Tim is the rare type of person who can receive them. “Wait,” he says, eyes still closed, mouth still pursed. “There’s a detective.” “Hold on a second,” says Alan, setting the ginger ale down on a nearby table and running out of the room. “Hurry,” says Tim. “Fucking hurry!” One hand is gripping the arm of the couch, the other gripping his knee. Alan rushes back into the room with the Book. They talk about it as if it were some massive physical object, like an illuminated vulgate from an ancient church, but it is only a spiral notebook. Each page has one of Tim’s ideas on it, written out by Alan. Television and movie executives pay just to look through it, and are allowed to rip out one page to take with them. Tim pays no attention to the way his ideas are used; he never watches TV or goes to the movies. Alan knows every idea the book contains or has contained and has decided part of his job is to monitor the airwaves, cinemas, and, more importantly, the websites and magazines that track early production, to make sure that none of their clients attempt to use ideas other than the ones they’ve been given. Alan has had to make a few threatening phone calls to people considered powerful in the industry. But “industry power” is a tricky thing, and Alan’s lack of aspiration is a power all its own. This is the unspoken part of Alan’s job; he is not just the amanuensis, he is the keeper of the Book. “There’s detective,” Tim begins. “And his wife has been—his wife has been—” A pained expression returns to his face, but it’s laced with a confusion. Tim is remembering something, or trying not to remember it. “This—” says Val, “this seems like not a great idea.” “You’re right,” says Tim, his face opening up like a bloom. “Did you start a page?” he asks Alan.
“Yes,” says Alan. “Tear it out.” “Sure,” says Alan, who does so immediately and crumples it to a ball in his hand. He looks gratefully at Val. They have averted a disaster together. “I’ll take Alex his ginger ale.” With the book tucked under his arm, he takes the soda and heads for the kitchen. “He’ll know eventually, Val,” says Tim. The past five minutes are gone for him, like they’d never happened. This is the way he has learned to deal with his pain: brushing up against it accidentally in a dark room, he flees the dark room entirely and slams the door behind him. “I just don’t want it hanging over the whole trip,” Val says to him. “I want us to have these last couple weeks.” “And the producers are paying for the whole trip?” he asks. “The show’s going into syndication in the fall,” she says. “They think if we hit the major comic conventions it’ll scare up some more interest.” She is careful not to say the show’s name, even mentioning it has its risks. “They must have asked you, too.” He waves this away. “Alan handles all that.” Val knows that this little wave of the hand includes not just the requests for public appearances, which are universally denied, but the complicated and lucrative contracts surrounding the show’s syndication. No wonder Alan didn’t aspire to power in the demimonde of entertainment: he already had it. “Even summer camp has to end,” says Tim finally.His face suddenly crumples again. “Alan?” he calls. “Yes?” says Alan, returning from the kitchen, pen at the ready. “Something with summer camp. Friday the 13th.” The transmission is difficult to hear, it is moving in and out. Tim cocks his head to one side, then the other. “Okay,” says Alan, encouraging. “It’s a training camp,” says Tim, realizing this for the first time. “Secretly. For detectives. Run by a…a shady billionaire.” “We have a lot of shady millionaires in the book right now,” warned Alan. “What about a shady government agency?”
“Make one of the other ones a shady government agency,” Tim says crossly, “This one is a shady billionaire. He’s trying to solve the murder of his sister and he needs a natural born detective. So he collects these teens into a summer camp with one latent psychopath.” “Every summer?” “If it gets renewed. That’s not my problem.” He looks at Alan and nods. The transmission has ended. Alan closes the book, but lingers in the room. These broadcasts often come in sets. Once one is completed, it’s often best to stay nearby waiting for a follow up. After a minute, Alan takes the Book and recedes into a corner of the room. “I’m sorry, Val,” Tim says. “Your problem.” No matter how many times she sees it, Val is always amazed by the lacunae Tim creates around his channelings. She wonders if he knows any of the ideas in the Book, or if he would even recognize them as his own. “It’s not a problem,” she says. “Conundrum?” “It’s a matter of when,” she says. Alex comes from the kitchen, holding the ginger ale in one hand, book in the other. A bendy straw descends from his lips like a proboscis. “Mom, this ginger ale is better than ours,” he says, straw in the corner of his mouth. “Is it?” she asks, dryly. “It really is,” he assures her. “Ours is organic.” “This one might be organic,” he says. “It’s really good.” “Does it say organic?” she asks. She has trained Alex to look for organic labeling the way her parents taught her to check for the Mr. Yuck image that indicates poison. “I don’t see it,” he says, turning the can around and around in his hand. “Then it’s not.” “Well it’s better,” he says, with the mild defiance he’s been developing this year. “It’s more ginger-y.” “Do you know what actual ginger tastes like?” she asks, knowing she is close to sounding patronizing. He looks at her, a little defeated, a little hurt.
“I just like it better,” he says, resolving that not only is this the correct response but that his preference trumps her logic. Convinced he has won the argument, he returns to the kitchen. “You’ve corrupted my child,” Val tells Alan. “You need to tell him,” says Tim. “He now thinks what ginger tastes like is corn syrup and chemicals.” “It’s what they had,” says Alan apologetically from his corner. “I’m kidding, Alan,” she says. “I’m sorry, Val,” says Tim, shaking his head at Alan with a look that indicates how hard it is to find good help. “Tim,” she says, “he’ll live through one non-organic soda.” “Does he eat meat?” asks Tim. “Do you?” “Oh god, all the time,” she says. “Free range, grass fed—” Tim twirled his finger in the air, trying to think of other modifiers that could be attached to meat. “We had hot dogs from a cart on the way over,” Val says. Her proscriptions on their eating habits fall hardest on those things she has little use for to begin with. Candy and soda are intensely scrutinized for additives and preservatives, while hot dogs and pastrami sandwiches remain staples. “Huh,” says Tim, mulling this a second. A signal is coming in. Tim’s face twitches with it. “Adam!” he shouts. “Right here,” Alan says quietly, opening the book again. “Food related apocalypse,” says Tim. “A small cadre of granola junkies survive.” “Really?” says Val. “Granola junkies?” He makes a spitefully face at her, then grins and turns back to Alan. “Dress it up. Use something less offensive. It’s a celebration of their food ethics.” He leans back into the couch, content with himself. “That’s it?” says Alan, skeptically. “Oh Christ,” Tim says, leaning forward onto his knees. “Everyone who eats processed food turns into a zombie. Better?” “We might get under the wire with zombies,” Alan says. “What’s the new zombies?”
“Dystopias.” “Of course it’s a dystopia,” shouts Tim, “it’s full of fucking zombies!” “Non-zombie dystopias,” says Alan. “Is it trending up or down?” “Down.” “So what’s the new dystopias?” “Wolfmen,” says Alan, as if this is a well-known fact. “But probably not for long.” “So processed food turns them into wolfmen,” Tim says. “Or creatures of the black lagoon. Or whatever’s the new wolfmen.” This is more in-depth idea work than Val has seen him do in a long time. Normally, the transmissions are received or lost; they cannot be translated, edited, altered to fit the tastes of the market. It is another one of the positive effects Alan has had on him, this ability to hold an idea in his head for longer than it takes to speak it aloud. Val has allowed herself to hope this might be an early step on his way to becoming a storyteller again, rather than just a conceptgenerating device. “Leave it as creatures?” asks Alan. “Leave it as creatures,” agrees Tim. The two men smile at each other and nod, and Tim, exhausted, drops back into the couch.
iii. Their own apartment is what his mother calls a railroad. The first stop is the living room, followed by stops at the kitchen, the bathroom, and his room, with a terminus at his mom’s room. He understands these rooms as a series of occurrences, or as levels of intimacy. Everyone can be in the living room, anyone can come to the kitchen if they want something, or go to the bathroom if they need to. His room is off limits except by invitation, and his mom’s room is off limits except to him, and then only by invitation. But the Idea Man’s apartment is a labyrinth, each room connected with two or three others. Understanding the conversation in the living room does not include him, Alex wanders from the kitchen down a hallway that leads into Alan’s room, which is
impeccably neat. From there he heads to the Idea Man’s room, the total opposite. It reminds Alex of his own room, if you removed the toys from the clutter and left only the strewn-about clothes. He wanders into what he calls the Trophy Room. In the daytime, light pours in through the big windows onto shelves of gold statuettes and framed certificates. But now it’s dark and the lights don’t work. Alex still finds the picture he’s looking for and carries it out into the hallway to examine it better. His mom and dad are in the picture together, dressed up and happy. He knows the picture is not from New York but some other place, in a world that’s been lost or drowned. “That’s a very old picture,” says the Idea Man, who has snuck up on him somehow. Alex has not previously thought of the Idea Man as sneaky, but he does notice that he only ever wears socks, which are a serious aid to stealth. Alex notes this, adds it to his conception of the Idea Man. “I’m not in it,” Alex says. This is part of dating pictures for him. That his mom and dad are happy puts an end limit on when the photo can be from, but without himself there as a reference, it’s difficult to narrow the range. “You’re not in lots of my pictures,” says the Idea Man. Alex rolls his eyes, smiling. “Was I born in this one?” “You were born. You were probably three.” “Then where was I?” The Idea Man shrugs. “At home. With a babysitter, I’d imagine. It was late.” With the time zeroed in on, Alex looks closer at the background. The not-New Yorkness is evident. The building behind them looks like a sultan’s palace, and is lined with palm trees. “Where are you guys?” he asks. “We’re at the Emmys,” says the Idea Man. “The last good time.” “You all have statues,” Alex points out. “We all won.” “Except the one lady,” says Alex, pointing to the short blonde woman standing next to the Idea Man in the photo. “There is no award for any of the things she did,” the Idea Man says. “There should have been.” “She was your wife,” Alex deduces. He is not much of a detective, and he knows it. Not just because whenever he fails to find something, a book he’s looking for or a toy
left somewhere in the house and his mom finds it instantly, she says, “Not much of detective, are you?” But because as he gets older, certain skills, like detectiving, fall away, a trade off for other skills getting better. He used to think of himself as a really good dancer and piano player. Now he doesn’t dance anymore, but he plays piano a lot better than he used to. He wonders what skill he’s traded detectiving for and hopes it will be a worthwhile trade. “You remember her?” asks the Idea Man. “A little,” Alex says. “She was pretty. She was nice.” He remembers the Idea Man’s wife giving him cake, although he can’t remember the occasion. She would sing, too. Sometimes she and his mom would sing together. But he can’t remember the last time his mom sang. Maybe she traded singing for something else. “She was pretty,” says the Idea Man. “She was nice.” “She died?” Alex asks. “She died,” says the Idea Man. He is looking at the photo now with the same face his mom gets sometimes, a face that makes Alex feel like he’s not really in the room. He wants to bring the Idea Man back out of the photo, but doesn’t know the magic words to do it. “How long after this?” he asks. This pushes the Idea Man even deeper into the photo. “Exactly one year,” the Idea Man says. “One year after that night.” “Were my mom and dad there when she died?” “They were. We all were.” “But none of you could help her?” Alex thinks he knows the answer to all these questions, like he’s heard the whole story somehow without anyone really telling it to him. It’s like a book he’s read over someone’s shoulder without them knowing. “We all tried,” says the Idea Man. “I was—I was hurt. There wasn’t anything I could do.” Alex knows this feeling. It is pretty much the worse feeling there is, and he is feeling a little bit of it right now. Because he wants to help the Idea Man feel better, but he doesn’t know how and there isn’t anything he can do either. “You must miss her a lot,” Alex says. “Only when I think about her.”
“You must think about her a lot.” The Idea Man turns the picture over and hands it back to Alex. Alex looks at the back side of it, expecting for a moment to see the same photo, shot from behind, the original photographer revealed over everyone’s shoulders. But it’s only a dull brown nothing. “All the time,” the Idea Man says, and goes back down the hall, not making a sound. iv. Valerie prefers the winter for leaving anywhere. Having stage business, coats to search for in coatpiles, buttons to button. Making an exit the summer has something ungracious about it, she thinks as the four of them stand in the entry way, waiting for something to be completed before she and Alex can leave. But there is nothing to complete other than leaving. “When are you hitting the road?” Tim asks. “Tomorrow,” she says, even as the list of things yet to do flashes in her head. “How long does it take to drive to Cleveland?”” “I should know this? Who ever has to drive to Cleveland? Arthur?” “Now you’re just being difficult,” says Alan. This playful domesticity between them, the dynamics of an elderly married couple, calms some of Val’s concerns about leaving Tim for so many months. “How long does it take to drive to Cleveland?” Tim asks Alan. “I’ve never driven to Cleveland,” says Alan. “No one’s ever driven to Cleveland,” says Tim, exasperated. “But there must be some way to calculate it or something.” Val intervenes in this argument by pulling Tim away and into a hug. “It’ll take how long it takes,” she tells him. Tim nods, his chin rubbing gently against the top of her head. “You’ll take care of him?” she says to Alan, turning her back on Tim. “As best I can,” Alan says sweetly.
“You’re fantastic and he loves you dearly,” she tells him. He bows his head. Alan is terrible at accepting compliments. “You’ll call?” he asks. “Whenever I can,” she says. “Alex,” Tim says, shaking the boy’s hand up and down like he’s priming a pump, “it was very good to see you.” “It was nice to see you, too,” says Alex. He pauses. He is deciding something, and after a moment he decides yes. “Can I have one?” he asks. Tim, who has bent over a little to shake Alex’s hand, straightens up and strokes his chin. “Hmm. People usually have to pay,” he explains to Alex. “I don’t really have any money,” says Alex, although this is not entirely true. Valerie makes very sure he has ten dollars in his pocket at all times, but Alex has come to think of this money as talismanic rather than spendable. “Tell you what,” Tim says. “I’ll give you one, but if you make a story out of it, you have to tell it to me when its done.” “I thought you didn’t like stories,” says Alex. “I like stories very much,” Tim says. “I just can’t come up with them anymore.” This burns Valerie’s heart. This is what a sixth act of The Tempest would look like, Prospero lost without his arts. In the last story Tim had managed to tell, the one in which he was a surfer deadbeat who became a famous television director, he’d let the ending slip away from him, let someone else write it. Prospero had made his own decision; but someone else had broken Tim’s staff and cast his books into the sea. “Okay,” says Alex, putt his hand out to be shaken again, this time on business. “If I make a story out of it, I’ll tell it to you next time I see you.” Tim takes this as an opportunity to fix Val with one last reprimanding look, but it is not the time to tell Alex they won’t be coming back to New York, at least not together. “All right,” Tim says, shaking Alex’s hand once, twice, three times, the number of anything magic. He squats down. He lowers his voice. “There’s a boy,” he says. “He wakes up in a cave, alone. He doesn’t know where he is or who he is. In the cave with him, there’s a robot. About the size and shape of a man. But it’s broken.” He looks into Alex’s face to see how much Alex understands. “That’s it?” Alex asks, not sounding disappointed, but wanting to be sure.
“That’s it,” says Tim. “Does the boy know how to fix it?” asks Alex. Tim shakes his head and shrugs. “I’m wondering that myself,” he says. Val watches Alex’s face as he digs a place in his mind for the idea. Where there was nothing before, now there is a boy, and a cave, and a broken robot hoping to be fixed. Saying last goodbyes, they leave the castle, descending the stairs carefully in the dark. On the street now it is only the spaceboys and spacegirls, grouped in doorways and under streetlamps with no time to notice anyone but themselves.
“Mom?” he calls from the other room. The word soars up through an octave like a freed bird. Val yanks the floss out from her molars, holds it taut across her thumbs. “What’s up, Rabbit?” It is a new nickname between them, inspired by the upper incisors that now outsize the milk teeth in his broad smile. “What’s a vestabool?” “Vestibule? It’s a kind of porch.” “Oh.” She goes back to violently working at her teeth and gums. She watches her reflection hoping to collect some face she can use if she ever lands a role that calls for pain or murderous rage. When she is done, she picks a brush from her bag and starts at her hair with similar aggression. The heat has kinked it almost to the point of knotting. She pulls a lock down in front of her eyes with two fingers and examines the ends. They branch like the ends of neurons. The day’s driving has leeched the higher reds from her hair, leaving it coppery dross. “Mom?” Again swooping upward. Her eyes reflexively roll upward, but her heart rises into the air to meet the sound. “What’s up, Rabbit?” “What’s chivalrous?” “Why don’t you make a list and we’ll go through it together?” she calls. “I need this one now,” he says plaintively. “I can’t just skip over it.” “Gentlemen being kind and polite to ladies,” she says. “Oh.” Never thank you, just oh, as if he would’ve figured it out in a second anyway. She evaluates herself in the mirror, convinced she can’t possibly measure up. Out
there on DVDs and torrent files, Agent Maggie Campbell is still striding around, a ten years younger version of the woman in the mirror. That’s who people will want tomorrow, not this woman. This woman who thinks returning to an old haircut will wipe away years. She considers cancelling. She considers grabbing Alex right now and running back to New York. “Mom,” he calls from the next room, “they have Showtime.” “That’s nice,” she says, packing the brush away. She knows the question that comes next. “Can I watch my dad?” She steps into the bathroom doorway. Alex is propped up on the far bed, book shut in his lap. His eyes, huge, dark, not hers, fix on her. Usually she lets him watch Pen Is Mightier without having to ask. Two years ago, after a string of box office flops, Paul staged a career comeback, landing a roll in a cable sitcom about a washed up and sexually promiscuous writer. Since then, it’s been the only contact Alex has had with his father. Pen is Mightier is by no means age appropriate. But Val has to admit she loves letting her son think of his father as a comically sleazy failure. Still, she can’t stand to watch it with him. “Rabbit, it’s all reruns till fall,” she says. “I know, but I haven’t seen him most of this season.” Val can pinpoint exactly when she stopped letting Alex watch the show. Paul’s phone call had been two and a half months ago. She’d cancelled Showtime the next day. “Why don’t you read some more?” she asks. “They’re all sleeping,” he says, holding the book up to show her. “You can just wake them up,” she says, smiling. “It’s your book.” “No, it’s not,” he says, as if this is the most ridiculous suggestion. “It’s their story. They let me visit. And they need their sleep for tomorrow. Please, mom?” This time the word doesn’t rise. It flutters between them, then plunges into her chest. 19
“Okay, Rabbit,” she says wearily. “What time is it on?” “Ten to ten thirty,” he says, bouncing on his knees on the bed. The book thumps to the floor. “Little late,” she says, shaking her head as if reconsidering. “Mo-om.” This time it dive bombs and pulls up at the last second. She forces a grin. “If you’re in your PJs by quarter till,” she says. “I’ll get prettied up and go down to the bar for a half hour. Maybe I’ll meet a prince?” “You’re already pretty enough to meet a prince,” he says. She looks down at her faded University of Nebraska sweatshirt and jean shorts. She thinks of her frazzled hair and how much preparation will be required before she can present herself “in character” tomorrow. Her son’s flattery lifts her up and she is ready to greet an army of fanboys. She jumps onto the near bed and clambers over it. She leaps across the gap to Alex, who giggles and cowers. With cartoonish chomping noises, she plays at devouring his ears. “You are the most delicious rabbit since Easter,” she yells, and Alex squeals with joy under her assault.
The Night Before
“I’m telling you, it’s her,” Carl whispers, although there is no chance she can hear them. “What would she be doing in Cleveland?” Fred asks. “What are we doing in Cleveland?” says Brett. The three of them are hunched around a bistro table in the corner of the hotel bar, which is decorated to evoke memories of the bar in a popular eighties sitcom. This style of decoration, consisting mostly of red brick walls hung with bric-a-brac, has become some ubiquitous that it ceased to denote the particular sitcom bar and now denotes only “bar”. Most Americans, asked to describe a bar and given no other guidelines, would build its interior out of this shade of brick and clutter the walls with similarly mismatched bits of the past. A stained glass chandelier, which reminds Fred of his grandparents’ dining room, Brett of the painting of dogs playing poker, and Carl of a stained glass chandelier, gives their faces an orange tint like fake tanning cream. Brett notices this, although he is a penciler and not a colorist. The three of them have just purchased a pitcher of a local beer called Burning River, named after the igniting of the Cuyahoga River in 1969, and have been transfixed by the redhead at the bar since the moment she walked in. “You really think she’d be here for the comic book convention?” says Carl. “That’d be a big get for Cleveland Con,” says Brett. “I thought Cleveland Con was big,” said Carl. Of the three, Carl has the least to gain from working the convention circuit and getting him to start out in Cleveland, rather than next week at the more nationally known Chicago con has taken some hyperbole on Brett’s part. The three of them grew up together in Brooklyn heights, but it’s unusual for all 21
three of them to be together. Back in the day, they’d make comics in Brett’s basement, or bounce ideas around in diners and bars. But they’ve done most of the work on Lady Stardust by remote, communicating by phone and file attachments. Over two years, they’ve produced eleven issues, minor cult status, and a small income stream for each of them. Their publisher, Black Sheep Comics, is funding them through the entire convention circuit, billing it as a farewell tour. The truth is that this is a generous gesture designed to keep them around. This according to Carl, who is sure they’ll be getting tapped by Timely or National at one of these cons. Brett can’t remember the last time they were all together. Still on their first round of drinks, they make nervous jokes and are over-conscious of not mentioning work, as if scared they are no longer friends, but merely collaborators. “Cleveland is a big con,” Brett says, “but only for comics. San Diego and New York get a lot of movie and TV attention, but Cleveland’s still pretty much a pure comic book convention. A lot of big guys grew up in Cleveland. Bendis. Pekar. Brewer and Loeb.” This litany of names leaves them all nodding reverently for a moment. “But saying,” Brett continues, “Valerie Henson is a big get for Cleveland.” “So it is her,” says Carl. At the bar, the redhead under debate harpoons an olive the size of an eyeball from the depths of her martini and incisors it between two rows of perfect white teeth. “She’d be a big get like ten years ago,” says Fred dismissively. “How do you figure ten?” asks Brett. Fred leans back to pontificate. “Anomaly went off the air seven years ago. Seasons five through seven objectively sucked. Like as in irredeemably sucked. So I’m saying ten years ago, before it jumped shark, she’d be a big get. Now she’s off prime.” “She looks good,” Carl says. “Irredeemable suck?” says Brett.
“Total suck.” “When’s the shark jump?” “Minutes after the season four finale. The very moment Frazer and Campbell fuck. The second Frazer’s cock—” “Point made,” Brett says, wincing. “It’s the Moonlighting curse. And they never learn.” “Huh,” says Brett. “I liked five and six.” “The Stolen Baby season?” Fred cries incredulously. “You only like it because it reminds you how good the show used to be.” He says this in the definitive voice he often uses to inform people of their own opinions, a habit which since high school has driven Brett nuts. “Season seven was rough,” Carl says. “Season seven was abominable,” says Fred. “The cancellation was a mercy killing.” Synchronized, they take swigs of beer and sigh. “I bet you ten bucks you won’t go up and talk to her,” Carl says to Brett. “That bet’s only worth five,” mutters Fred into his beer.
Trying to decide if it makes her feel more like a waitress or like one of the boys, Gail makes her way to the table, holding their beers just above her head. She’s waited a long time for the acceptance of her peers to feel like a natural thing, but as one of the few female writers in a male-dominated industry, it is difficult for her not to secondguess everything. Not to imagine herself judged not on her work but on how different, how lacking, she is physically when compared with the anatomically ideal women she writes. Her first time out on the convention circuit, Gail played at dressing “sexy”, but a
modest cocktail dress in a sea of lycra and push-up bras made her feel absurd. Now she sports the same worn jeans and Northwestern University hoodie she wears at home writing. Her outfit for tomorrow is a variation on the same. She carefully sets the beers on the table. Ed predictably tips his fedora, and Geoff thanks her and raises his glass to cheers the three of them. “So have you had offers?” Gail asks, picking up the conversation where it left off. “Are we talking about this?” Ed asks. His voice is rapid and gruff, and very few people in the industry other than Gail and Geoff know this is not his natural voice. When Ed got his start at National writing fill-in issues of MegaMorphs, a comic derived from a cartoon show derived from a toy line, he was spunky, tee-shirt clad and spoke in the ringing voice you would expect from someone who’d been in their college’s glee club, which, although he’d never admit it to anyone, Ed had. When he’d made his major breakthrough with the grim and gritty detective series Cleave, which followed the investigation into the murder of a minor National Comics superhero, he’d taken on a public persona inspired by Dashiell Hammett. Through the intervening years, the persona, which included the fedora and the pack of Lucky Strikes poking carefully out from the pocket of his vintage shirt, has become dominant. “I was under the impression we had just agreed we were not talking about this,” he says. “So you’ve had offers,” Gail says. Of the three, Ed is the only one primarily employed by Timely Comics, where he writes three monthly titles. Geoff writes two titles for National, “consults” on four others, and remains tight-lipped as to what it means to “consult” on a title. Gail has one monthly ongoing at National, along with a miniseries wrapping up next month, and is doing some licensed titles at Black Sheep for extra cash. “I don’t think I could jump,” says Geoff. “I honestly don’t think I could.” Geoff is known warmly among National fans as the Boy Scout and disparagingly among Timely devotees as The National Geek. His brain is strangely suited to containing decades of comic book continuity, with the added ability to focus in on other writer’s abandoned characters and plot threads and spin them into star-spanning epics. As a result, some
people dismiss him as a tinkerer. Gail sees this form of bricolage as a skill peculiar to their medium, and Geoff as one if its strongest practitioners. “Don’t start,” says Gail, “You could write for anybody.” “That’s not true,” Geoff says. “That’s not. You could. You’re more versatile than I am.” “Less distinctive, style-wise is what he’s saying,” she explains to Ed, who laughs grimly. Ed, Gail notes, does many things grimly. “You have a very distinctive style,” Geoff insists a little too strenuously. “Female is not a distinctive style,” says Gail. “You bring a real compassion to your characters,” Geoff says. “It’s my mothering impulse,” Gail says in a voice of long-suffering. “So why couldn’t you write for Timely?” Ed asks Geoff. Ed has taken a cigarette from his pack and using it for a safer version of mumblypeg, tapping it nimbly in the spaces between his fingers, a practice slightly less dangerous than playing Russian roulette with a squirt gun. “Couldn’t might be strong,” Geoff admits. “I could.” “Have you had offers?” Gail asks again. “Can we just admit,” Ed says, spreading his hands out to quiet them both, although Gail was the only one talking, “that we’ve all had offers? That we’ve all been flirted with at this point?” No one responds, no one makes eye contact. “Good,” says Ed. He turns his attention back to Geoff. “Now why can’t you come write for Timely? What about the Ferret? You love the Ferret.” Each time he says “Ferret” he reaches across the table and hits Geoff lightly on the shoulder. This kind of casual physical contact is one of the things that makes Gail feel like an outsider. Out of a respect for her physical person she’s never requested, very few male writers ever touch her in any way that isn’t formal and earnest, mostly hugs and handshakes.
“I loved Porter Coleman’s run on the Ferret,” says Geoff, narrowing in on two years of the character’s half century history. “The Catholic stuff?” says Ed. “Really?” “Oh yeah,” says Geoff. He once told Gail that as a sixteen year old, he quoted lines from the comics where the Ferret is struggling to reconcile his vigilantism and his Catholicism to explain to his parents why he would no longer attend Presbyterian Church. “So if Timely offers you the Ferret,” says Ed, “you say no?” Gail notices a certain edge to the way Ed is digging here and wonders if he knows something or is trying to, forgive her, ferret it out. “The universes work differently,” Geoff says. “The universes?” asks Gail. “Timely and National.” “How are they different? Other than Outerman and the Dark Angel are in one and Red Emma and the Ferret are in the other.” “Perfect examples,” says Geoff. “Sixty years of National Comics, how many Outermen have their been?” “Three?” offers Ed. “Five from Home Earth, dozens if you include all of the AlterEarths. How may Dark Angels?” “Edmund Kane, Richard Blake,” begins Ed. “Nancy Whitaker,” adds Gail. “Wasn’t she, like, a Dark Angel-ette?” asks Ed. “There’ve been seven,” says Geoff. “And how many Ferrets? How many Red Emmas?” “The Ferret’s the Ferret,” says Ed.
“And he’s been the Ferret for fifty years. Without aging. There’s no function of time in the Timely Universe. The National Universe is obsessed with time. Characters age, they pass on their identities to other characters.” “That’s bullshit,” says Ed. “The original OuterMan’s been de-aged a half dozen times. He’s perpetually thirty.” “He’s repeatedly thirty,” Geoff corrects. “The Ferret is perpetually thirty. All those gimmicky de-aging stunts just prove my point. The National Universe has a clock, even if it resets the clock now and then. Timely doesn’t. It’s a fundamental difference in the way the universes function.” “The universes work the way the writers write them,” says Ed, returning to his cigarette tapping. “You say that, but it’s because you don’t have to worry about it,” says Geoff. “You do this street-level ass-kicking stuff and it doesn’t matter if it’s the mean streets of Metro City or the mean streets of New York.” “Thank you,” says Ed, “for so elegantly belittling my work.” “Who’s belittling?” says Geoff, throwing his arms outward. “I’m writing Outerman and I’m being outsold by your Red Emma book every month.” “Both of which,” Gail reminds them, “outselling anything I do.” “I could do cosmic if I wanted,” Ed mutters petulantly. “I can go cosmic.” “Why is a man writing Red Emma anyway?” asks Gail, a constant lament, which changes only in what iconic female character she is singling out as an object of exploitation. It depresses Gail that she has gotten tired of her own complaints, but she continues to lodge them dutifully. “It’s due to my lack of compassion,” Ed says. “It’s due to my lack of a cock,” Gail says. “Which is also why, incidentally, I have not had offers.” “You’re shitting me,” says Ed, banging his beer on the table for emphasis.
“Why would you leave anyway?” asks Geoff, sounding a little hurt. He is not a complete cheerleader for National, but he is wearing an Outerman tee shirt, one of several National character tee shirts he regularly sports. “I don’t want to leave,” says Gail. “But I’d like the option of leaving.” “I can’t believe Timely hasn’t made you an offer,” says Ed, causing Gail to once again wonder what he knows that she doesn’t. “Besides which,” she continues, “what if National decides they don’t want me anymore? That I don’t understand how the universe works? I’m back working full time creator-owned, if I can get somebody to publish it.” “You working on ideas of your own?” Geoff asks. “I like to think all my ideas are my own,” says Gail. Creator-owned work holds a weird place of reverence among the three of them. Steady superhero work pays more reliably and affords a comfortable living, not to mention all three of them are established enough to have a certain amount of creative freedom in their work. But they are playing with someone else’s toys. The rarity of a successful creator owned project is forboding, and the path is littered with bodies, but at the end of the path? Complete creative control. Complete rights. Gail talks about creator owned work it as if she’s equating it with financial ruin, but part of her hopes she might be forced off that cliff, might mid-fall begin to float. “I bet by the end of con season,” Ed says to her, “Timely offers you a book.” “Maybe they’ll offer me Red Emma,” she says, grinning maliciously at him. “We could co-write an arc,” he suggests. “I would destroy you with my skills,” Gail says, waving him away. “He would drink you under at every story meeting,” Geoff says. Ed looks directly at him as he finishes his beer, then turns back to Gail. “By San Diego,” he says, “Timely offers you a book.” “You putting the word in with Weinrobe?” she asks. Gail has never attempted
contact with Philip Weinrobe, Timely’s fresh-faced editor-in-chief. There is something about him that reminds her of the kind of frat boy who talks disparagingly of the whole frat system and has a dozen reasons why while he is in a frat, he’s not really a frat boy. “You want a word in,” says Ed, I’ll put a word in. Who do you want to write? “Tell him we should change the Ferret into a woman and I’ll write her,” says Gail. “Ferret’s in movie development,” Geoff says, always aware of various character’s licensing statuses. “They’ll never let you gender-bend him.” Here, a rule of comic book writing: the more money a character is worth as a property, the less the writer is allowed to deviate from that character’s status quo or core concept. All three of them were, in a way, blessed that none of the characters under their current control were being considered for Hollywood treatment. “Who will they let me gender-bend?” Gail asks. “You can gender-bend me any day of the week,” Ed says, leaning in and fixing her with his best fanboy leer. “There’s not enough compassion in all of Metro City for me to mercy fuck you, dear,” Gail informs him, dusting off her beer quicker than Geoff, but not as quick as Ed. In the midst of things but not in the lead.
Casey Livingston, doctoral candidate in English, concentrating deeply, Bob Cratchitts over his notebook at the end of the bar. He drinks water with such rapidity the bartender has tagged him as annoying. The notebook is full of addenda and footnotes to a longer paper, which is on his laptop upstairs, ready to be spliced together with pirated image files to form a PowerPoint demonstration. Casey has not yet started to worry about the fact he does not know how to work the PowerPoint software he only got two days ago, also pirated. For some time, he does not notice Kevin Cronin, who looks just like the picture next to his bylines on NerdFeast.com seated next to him.
Kevin is studying Casey’s posture and facial expressions, every now and then looking outward to an imagined audience with an expression that reads, isn’t this interesting? “Is this your speech?” asks Kevin, once Casey has become aware of his presence and they’ve exchanged the kind of masculine handshake that threatens to blossom into a hug, then withers. “It’s not a speech,” Casey says, mock exasperated. “Speech is what you give in elementary school.” This tone of argument is safe and playful ground for them: Kevin feigning ignorance regarding academic terminology, Casey schoolmarmishly explaining..They’ve established it online in a way that Kevin thinks could be sparring or flirtation: “So what is it?” asks Kevin. “It’s a talk,” Casey says. Taking his turn at being mock-exasperated, Kevin asks, “What’s it about?” “Christianity’s fascistic tendency exposed in Alan Greene’s run on The Savior,” states Casey. Kevin knows Casey’s other work this is not a description but a subtitle, coming after a colon break and a more rock-em-sock-em title. “The eighties stuff?” he asks. “It’s seminal superhero deconstruction,” says Casey. “You’ve read it, right?” This is one of the fundamental fault lines that separates their taste in comics. Casey’s favorite superhero stuff is the meta-comics of the mid to late eighties, when writers were taking apart characters like pocket watches to see how the gears fit together. Kevin tends to favor the flash-bang stuff of the nineties, with its virtuoso artists and endless massive crossovers infused with the constant threat of universal destruction. They’ve been over all this in forum threads and chat rooms for three years, but this is their first real life meet up. “I’ve read about it,” says Kevin, who has read The Savior but is not ready to hear the totality of Casey’s thesis before getting a drink. “I thought your panel wasn’t until Chicago,” Kevin says.
“It’s not,” says Casey, sheepishly closing the notebook. Kevin it that he seems awkward. In all their exchanges, he pictured Casey this way, an academic in the Icabod Crane mold. “But there’s this little chance that Alan Greene might actually show up at the panel.” “He’s going to be at Chicago,” Kevin affirms. He has this on good authority, even though the famously reclusive writer, often referred to in the industry as the Brilliant Brit, has not been announced as a guest at the Chicago convention. “Do you want to talk to him?” Kevin asks. “I can try to set up an interview. Although he’s a prick about being interviewed.” He’s not sure where NerdFeast stands in the Brilliant Brit’s books these days. He knows there were a few years there, after the site spoiled the ending of the Brit’s long-running Mosiac Law storyline the Brit wouldn’t have pissed on a NerdFeast reporter standing in an autograph line on fire. “No,” Casey says definitively. “No, I don’t want to interview him. It would just be weird if he was at my panel. I just don’t want to sound stupid.” “I’ve never known that to be a problem for you,” Kevin says, putting a hand on his shoulder tentatively. “What about you?” Casey asks, changing the subject. He doesn’t remove the hand, but turns his body in such a way it would be awkward for Kevin to keep it there. “I’m covering the Timely Legends Panel on Saturday,” Kevin says, and they both nod solemnly. “Brewer and Loeb, together on stage for the first time in twenty-five years,” he says in a pitchman’s voice. The Legends Panel is the big draw in Cleveland this year, hyped on the back cover of every Timely comic published in the past three months. Brewer and Loeb, midwives to the Timely Age of Comics. The artist-writer team that created the Ferret, the Gaul, the R-Squad and countless other properties that still fifty years later fueled vast engines of cultural production. A split whose animosity, if not its notoriety, dwarfed that of the Beatles. From what Kevin has heard, Timely offered Loeb a boatload of money to bury the hatchet and drive the half hour from his house in a low-rent Cleveland suburb to appear on the panel. Rumor also has it that whatever incentive had bated the aged artist to be there is being withheld until the end of the panel, contingent on his good behavior.
“NerdFeast wants it,” says Kevin, settling into his drink. “I’m hoping maybe I can sell it long form to real press.” The gap between his work and “real press” has widened significantly in Kevin’s mind over the past three years or so. Casey dreams of tenure tracks, Kevin dreams of a Harper’s cover story. “You think anything’s going to happen?” Casey asks. “Other than me falling asleep?” Kevin asks, playing for a minute the world-weary reporter, the kind a superhero might use as a secret identity. “Unlikely.”
She sees the boy approaching in the mirror behind the bar, walking towards her bold and intentional. He is maybe twenty-five tops. It has been a while since she’s been approached. When he is almost within shoulder-tapping range, she spins on her barstool to preempt him. “Hi,” she says. The boy is flustered, stops dead. She sees two boys at a table in the corner laughing. “Hi,” he says and stands there. She waits. “You’re Valerie Henson, right?” “I am.” She waits. When she first became a recognizable face, she felt a pressure to bridge these silences. If she was going to be a celebrity, it was important that she thought of herself as an approachable celebrity. Particularly as she watched Daniel become more and more disdainful of their fans. When the fans grew more aggressive, she went into retreat, and it is from this position she smiles at the boy, waiting. Tomorrow, when she is in character as Agent Campbell or at least as Valerie Henson, Celebrity, she will be
outgoing, warm and bright. Tonight, they’ll have to come to her. “Are you here for the convention?” he asks. “I am.” He waits for her to say more, then continues. “Me too. I’m a penciller. Lady Stardust?” “Your name is Lady Stardust?” “No, it’s the comic I draw. Black Sheep Comics? I thought you might have—” “I don’t read comics much,” she says. “Is it good?” He shrugged. “It’s a little over the top, actually. Sex, drugs and cravats. My friend over there writes it.” He points to one of the boys at the table in the corner and both the boys wave. Valerie politely waves back. “It’s glammy, which people are still buying. Fluorescent eye shadow. Sexy Martians. Fred is still working through his acid and Byron phase.” “So not for kids.” “No, not for kids.” “Huh.” She finishes her drink and turns back to the bar to set it down. “Can I buy you another?” he asks. She smiles. She wonders if Alex will grow to be this kind of boy, earnest and feigning shyness. Radiating urges he’d never think to voice, hiding them from himself by being polite. By being chivalrous. “I have a gentleman waiting for me upstairs,” she says. “I—oh, I wasn’t trying to—” She laughs and puts her hand on his arm. “It’s my son,” she says. “I left him watching TV for a bit, but I have to get back.” “Oh.” “What’s your name?”
“Brett. It’s Brett.” “Did your friends dare you to come talk to me? They’re watching pretty intently.” “They bet me ten dollars,” he admitted. “So you’re the brave one.” He seemed to consider this before answering. “Well, Fred has a girlfriend in New York. Or says he does. And Carl’s an inker.” She is not sure what this means, but she nods. “I’m glad you won your bet, Brett.” She stands, touches his elbow, and starts for the door. “Miss Henson?” he says as she passes. “Valerie,” she says, which makes him smile. “I liked season seven.” She knows this is a remnant from another conversation, but she has also been around fans long enough to understand the sentiment. “I’m glad,” she says and leaves the bar.
Pause for Effect
He never worries. She is always on time. The credits start and her key is rattling in the lock. “Did you meet a prince?” he asks before she is through the door. “Nope,” she says, kicking off her pretty shoes. “No princes tonight.” She shuts the door gently behind her, but the lock still makes a loud click. “Oh.” “How was your father?” she asks him. This reminds him he’s left the TV on and the next show, which he’s not allowed to watch, is starting. He finds the remote and turns it off. “It was a good one,” he says. “It was funny and nobody gets sad.” “That does sound good,” she says, pushing his hair back to kiss him on the forehead. She stands and smiles at him. She’s been doing that a lot this trip and it makes him worried. He doesn’t know why, but it’s like she’s making notes of everything about him, so she doesn’t forget. “Tell me a story?” he asks, half because he wants her to stop standing there smiling and half because he wants a story. “After I get my PJs on?” “After you get your PJs on,” he agrees. She goes into the bathroom and he realizes she already had her PJs on before she went out. He did that. He chased her out of the room so he could watch his dad. And it was a rerun even. When she comes back, he convinces her to stay in the bed with him while she tells the story and he cuddles her extra. “What season do you want?” she asks, once they are settled in and the big lights are off. 35
“Season five,” he says. If he had his choice, all the stories would be season five stories. But he knows there are only so many. “Storyline or freak of the week?” she asks. This one he has to consider. Storyline stories can be harder to follow, especially if he starts to fall asleep. “Freak of the week,” he decides, “but not too scary.” She nods, puts her finger on her chin and scrunches up her whole face. This is her “considering the options” face and it makes him incredibly happy because it always comes before a story. “All right. Not too scary.” She cleared her throat. Her story voice was a little different from her own. Deeper, more deliberate. “So Frazer and I had just finished a big case, and we decided to take some time off. We went up to a cabin in Concord, which is in Massachusetts. To spend some time together. Relax. The first night we were there, we went out to dinner. To a nice restaurant.” Most of the season five stories were like this, or had some element of this. It was like hearing stories of his parents dating, although he’d never heard any actual stories of them actually dating. “But then, just as the waiter was bringing us our wine, he gets shot—” she pokes him in the chest for emphasis and he jumps, “—right in the chest. Only, here’s the weird thing, we do an autopsy—” “Where you cut up the body?” “Where you cut up the body. And it’s not a bullet he’s been shot with.” She pauses for effect. “It’s a musket ball.” “What’s a musket ball?” He is imagining it as something like a basketball, although he is unsure how this would fit into the waiter’s chest. He can see he’s ruined his mom’s dramatic moment and he wishes he’d already known what a musket ball was. “It’s like a bullet, only it’s from the Revolutionary War,” she explains.
“And it’s two hundred years old.” “Wow,” he says, finally getting the impact of the musket ball. “Weird.” He shifts his weight, burrowing into the pillow and into her side so he can feel her story, the words vibrating in her ribs against his face. He tries to stay with the story and to stay in this moment, but sleep is expanding in his head like a musket ball inflating with his mother’s breath, pushing the story out and away and away.