The Orchestrals :or: One Among Many Failures Where does a six hundred pound crocodile sleep? Anywhere he wants to. That will be my last thought, he thought as the metal chord tightened around his neck and the metaltoed boot pushed his face harder into the snow and harder into the concrete under the snow, the soft of his face and the soft of the snow the only things yielding between hardness of boot and ground. But that wasn’t his last thought. He thought, What is that kind of harness they use on wild animals with the pole and the loop? Could it tighten enough to choke a man to death? Shouldn’t they have safeguards? It was that bargaining stage, the last scrap of hope – but all pointless, a waste of depleting brain time. But his brain wasn’t built for the glorious. His mother always told him he’d be a star, literally, she said, like one of those twinkling up there, in her weird joking way. Now he was only flesh expiring, an exterminated animal. He only always wanted to be a standup comedian. The first full sentence listed in his baby book: Where does a six hundred pound crocodile sleep? His childhood hero: Howie Mandel, of course, Walk Like a Man, the rubber glove, the whole nine yards. He was working on decent catalogue of jokes for the one day when he’d get the balls to go on stage and let people judge him in silence. But then one day at the kitchen table after supper his parents, Hank and Helen Heart, after getting him to clean off the table in their imposition of discipline and decency, sat him down and told him, “Herbert,” his mother started, “We have


something to tell you. We’ve shielded you from something about ourselves. It’s for your own safety, but you’re sixteen now. We think you’re mature enough.” “Cut to the chase, Helen,” his father cut in. “No need delaying this. Look, Herbert, we’re superheroes. Your mother and I. That’s what we’ve done our whole lives. So … there it is.” Herbert didn’t reply. His parents’ faces went from sternseriousfurrowedbrowfaces to happyhopefulhalfsmiles back to serious again in the mystery of his silence. “What, are you serious?” Herbert finally said. “Yes. It’s a family business,” his mother said. “Family legacy really,” his father corrected. “We want you to … to be part of that legacy.” “Wait, what?” Herbert said, laughing a little. “You’re superheroes, like, did you have radioactive accidents or something?” he laughed again. It wasn’t very funny. “No.” His mother breathed in deep to prepare for the next bit: “We are bonded to creatures called Orchestrals, a cross between an orca and a kestrel. Invisible to all but our family, they must bond themselves to humans or they’ll float up into the sky and die in outer space, drowning really. The physics are hard to explain.” “Are they aliens?” “No, just a species,” his mother said, smiling. “A very special species of … of creatures. A cross between an orca and a kestrel, as I said.” “I’ve never heard of anything like that. This is ridiculous.” Herbert was still laughing. None of this laughing or smiling had much happiness behind it. “Like I said, only our family can see them, so really no one else in the world knows about them.”


“I can’t get past the idea that you guys are playing some kind of joke.” “Have you ever known us to be anything other than serious?” his father said. “Look, Herbert, don’t take this the wrong way. We’ve been worried about how sharp … how observant you are … especially considering your destiny to fulfill the family legacy. I fully expected you to catch on that we were superheroes in sixteen years of living in this house. What exactly did you think I did for a living?” Hank Heart stood there staring at his son now, one eyebrow raised, one fist on him like half a superhero. “You’re a … a scholar,” Herbert said. “Yes.” “And an inventor.” “Yes.” “And an artist and an engineer and a ‘Captain’ of some sort.” “Yes, I am all those things, but surely as a young boy the fact that I’m a superhero would have stood out somewhat. For example, your uncle …” “Uncle the Broken?” “You never noticed he was … well … a supervillain? He and his partner, Old God, would go out robbing banks, and I’d stop them. They’re my archenemies in fact. It didn’t seem strange I was always going out to fight your uncle and his partner?” “I just thought you hated them because they were gay.” “They’re not gay … They’re … they’re supervillains. That’s beside the point. We need to get you started training as soon as we can. Don’t want to fall behind. Tenen-Bomb’s kid across the street has already started his independent study.” “But, sir, I can’t be a superhero for a living. You know what I’ve always wanted to be when I grew up.” He waited for


them to fill in the silence simultaneously, in his imagining of it, “Standup comedian! Of course, son, we love you and know you.” But he had to do it himself, “I want to be a … a standup comedian.” “Oh,” his father said in surprise. “Oh,” his mother said, “Like the jokes you used to tell.” His father said, “I didn’t realize you took it all so seriously. Fine. We’ll indulge. Helen, sit down. Let’s indulge the boy. So, Herbert, go ahead. Give us some of your jokes.” “Oh okay, I mean I’ve been doing that for years but, you know, whatever …” Hank Heart smiled, patted his son’s knee, and said, “Well, now we know it’s a future occupation. Come on, give it to us.” Herbert cleared his throat. “Okay, well, here’s one I’ve been working on. Why is it we always gather and talk at the same time as we eat because we are putting food in our mouths … which makes it harder to talk.” “Because eating is a traditionally communal act,” his mom answered like it was a real question. “No, mom, I didn’t mean … I mean that was the …” “Oh,” his mom said, her eyes brightening with recognition. “That was funny. That was very funny.” He tried again: “Okay, so, what’s the deal with God? With all that power, and he picks a name like God? Pick another name, guy … with all that creativity, Creator, quote unquote … um … Like, Bob. Bob is better than God.” Silence. “That was the end?” his mother said. He tried one more: “Okay, so, my neighbor has a circular driveway. He doesn’t get out much.” “Now that was clever.” “That was a Steven Wright.”


“I see,” his father said and looked down at the floor then back up at Herbert. “Clearly, you have wants. Let’s let you think about it for a while and let you come back to us on that one.” Pretty soon they introduced him to his own Orchestral. In a big backyard ceremony more ostentatious than a bar mitzvah, Hank Heart’s Orchestral – who was called Orchestralking the King Orchestral – was looming above everything. It was the first Orchestral Herbert ever saw. It really did look like an orca and a kestrel, the bulk of an orca and a lot of that black galvanizedrubberlooking skin and on top of that the markings of a kestrel, but with a big gorilla-shaped body full of blocky muscles like cinder blocks shoved into a skinny body, but with all these white markings on top of that like cum-colored mud smeared in parallel streaks like some suburban imitation of nativeness. Its face was featureless, lacking eyes and nose and mouth, but this mouthlessness was most perplexing since in that growingupandbeingaman ceremony the King Orchestral launched into what seemed to be a practiced monologue – it could talk somehow, this seemed so much like some big practical joke he couldn’t really process the talking – but the Orchestral’s voice was booming and magisterial: “We Orchestrals are a majestic and powerful race with only one weakness,” boom boom across the backyard, “that we have no natural tie to earth’s gravity. We show our gratitude to humans for keeping us tied to this world by protecting the smaller and weaker from harm …” on and on the speech went, that sort of endless pomp. Nothing new from his father. Herbert stopped listening. This was all so ridiculous, comical in a way he hated. His father at least wore a stylish black suit and not the gaudy colors of superhero clichés, but still he wore this awful


looking wired up helmet that conjoined with the giant’s crotch like Orchestralking was only one of those creepy giant parade puppets that looked like giant ghosts crapping out humans. But also the giant seemed to blink in and out of reality like a faulty television but only in pieces, so Herbert wondered if it was less a puppet and more a hologram or some light trick his father invented, but then the Orchestral would come into full flesh and seem to stare right through him so that Herbert was certain, despite all his defensive rationalizations, that this Orchestral was really in front of him. That didn’t stop this too realliving and breathing creature from seeming puppetlike – or maybe, more accurately, slavelike. Each of the gesticulations was matched by one of his father’s down below, hamming it between the weird giant orca legs, head in the crotch like it was the most normal thing in the world. Herbert assumed the words were his father’s as well, all that self importance. Herbert thought back, instead of listening to the speech, to those lessons from his father, or at least what Herbert thought of as lessons. He’d attack his father, punching or kicking, playing at first like any boy, playing at being a big man, but his father would twist a limb this way and that, pretzling him on the floor. An arm, Hank’s or Herbert’s own, always around his throat, and Hank Heart would say as calmly as a nightmare, “You feel that? It’s your last breath. Your life is now ending. Don’t cry. You brought this on yourself.” One day, for example, Hank Heart took up painting and perfected it, of course, and was in the middle of some stupid perfect painting of perfect bird’s anatomy from memory or something when Herbert attacked and without messing up a single bit of his painting Hank Heart twisted Herbert into a kind of one armed cross face chicken wing that then twisted into an inverted front face lock – that’s what it was called,


right? he’d probably get quizzed on it later – with Herbert’s arm wrenched behind him as Hank continued to paint, squeezing his peck and his biceps against Herbert’s carotid artery. He said, “Feel the last breath you will ever breathe. Say good bye to the world. Do not cry.” Then Herbert passed out. Then there was the time when Hank Heart’s book came out – nothing but stuntlit pieces where he’d condense great works into six hundred words prosepoems and impressionistically capture the essence of the works in perfect little compact poetic prosaic whatever whatevers – and he was getting around to his three minute Ulysses, about as much doucheyness as could possibly be packed into three minutes, when Herbert dropped down from some scaffolding behind the curtain. Hank, without stuttering on a single “Yes, Yes, No, No,” twisted Herbert’s leg into a half Boston crab, resting a knee impossibly and painfully on Herbert’s balls while he finished up his reading. The crowd didn’t bother to call child protective services. They cheered the magnificent performance. Why shouldn’t they? And now here Herbert’s dad, the great Hank Heart or Captain Heart or whatever they called him, was a giant with a giant voice, always now a power too great. The Orchestral they hooked Herbert up with was a baby, or so they told him, and wouldn’t be able to speak for years. Herbert had only a short time to train with his Orchestral before they sent him out for real world training. He had to get used to the way the Orchestral’s arms moved in time with his arms and the way legs moved to compensate for his position. But the way it would phase in and out of the physical world was more difficult to predict. The Orchestral would never obstruct him from entering rooms, but he could punch a bunch of concrete blocks into smithereens, presumably making


the superheroing easier. Birds would land on top of the Orchestral, but snow would fall right through. It confounded Herbert to no end. He’d look up at snow falling straight through a giant body for a long time until he realized he was looking up into a monster’s crotch. Before the first mission Herbert went on, his father said, “It’s a nobody, shouldn’t even break a sweat, The Six Hundred.” “Six Hundred?” His concern was only accidentally audible. “It’s only one guy. Child’s play.” His very first villain. A guy named The Six Hundred. Go out there. Beat him. That’s it. This is why he had to beat The Six Hundred. What the King Orchestral said about duty to protect humanity had little to do with it. His father didn’t even bother to explain why The Six Hundred was a danger to others. Herbert had to beat The Six Hundred because he had to beat him, because his father said he could, because his father didn’t think he could – maybe if he failed, this whole thing would be over. Maybe if he succeeded, this whole thing would be over. He told himself he’d be fulfilled in superheroing by practicing his witty banter – there was enough overlap between standup comedy and superheroing, right? – but still he had that image in his mind of being older, sitting on a talk show couch, fake stars in the background, the laughing host, who knows, somebody generic but older and kind and smiling and the whole audience absolutely loving him, loving the standup comedian – he’d rename himself Bob and some Jewish last name, it would be the most amazing way to die, old and in the Catskills and loved by everyone for the happiness he brought. But now he had to do this one terrible thing. This one terrible thing and it would all be over.


The Six Hundred was in this alley off Dirac Street in the Abandon Factory District. How they knew he was in this alley was unclear, but then his mother was the one who did all the scheduling and she seemed to know everything anyway. Then he saw the Six Hundred in the alley and he didn’t seem that intimidating at first, a skinny guy, ribs poking out, skin pale like cadavers, face a perfect oval of concave bleeding flesh – very scary to look at, sure, but Herbert's Orchestral had a concrete busting punch, no problem. Then he saw the wings attached to The Six Hundred’s back by wires, wings like wings of a wild bird, feathers fluttering out and ruffled every which way up and down the wing, but standing three stories tall made out of metal junk held up by scaffolding and on casters. Wires went down to Six Hundred’s back, and the casters must’ve been there so he could move those wings around wherever he could fit them. Where could he even go with those things? Big opera lobbies maybe? It was pointless ostentation to have such enormous and useless wings. It reminded him of something his father would do, spend hours building these wings, perfecting them for no good reason but to show he could. But enough of this. The Six Hundred spotted him – he assumed since The Six Hundred had no eyeballs or face . Now, time for action. Herbert cocked back his fist and the Orchestral cocked back his much bigger fist, but he hesitated, the banter coming to mind easily, “I thought this was supposed to be a face off,” since the ugly bastard had no face, get it? Maybe this was what he was meant to do, use his position to be the world’s most respected banterer. But there was something greater making him hesitate: it was this assumption that The Six Hundred was no different from his father. And in the extra halfsecond it took Herbert to work these things out, faster than Herbert’s eyes could follow – must’ve covered half a football field in half a second – a white


cadaverous elbow to the face, his back to the concrete, the helmet busted, the Orchestral floating away from him, up and up into the blackness of the night and up into outer space, as slowly as snow, the snow falling the opposite direction through him. The baby. Pinpointing into blacknothing. And then that animal restraint and the final choke. He thought of his mother in the softness of that snow, the way he’d lay his head on his mother’s lap and she’d simply sing to him as comfort, hand on his back like warm was coming right through her. How disappointed she would be finding his dead body now. Everything was so cold and brittle. All his future would now crumble and all of everyone’s dream of his future would now crumble under the mistaken belief that he, little Herbert, could do it. He hoped his tears would freeze and freeze him there in time so always before him would be a golden time of dreamed about stars and laughter filling the frozen silence.

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