by Kurt Baumeister
(published by LITERARY ORPHANS)
Morning in America. Cheap, plastic Venetians screen sunlight from the living room of a four hundred square foot two-bed. Shadows cast by thirty-watt overheads, thrift store furniture, and a wood-cabineted television splash the dirtied-white walls. Hitting at 186,000 miles a second, they strobe briefly then disappear—forgettable flashes of abstract art, small prayers chasing tiny dreams…
Superman leaps, clearing the coffee table and its mass of dirty, breakfast dishes, landing on a holey rug spun in twin shades of brown—au lait and espresso, the scheme is a sort of coffee-centric salt and pepper. Rising to his full height of thirty-eight inches, Superman stands in the middle of the brown field, its border a geometric pattern of interlaced octagons in beige and rust and grimy gold. He stands wearing Superman underoos and nothing else.
Blond and fair and four years old, chest out, chin raised, Superman places his hands on his hips and strikes his most heroic pose. You can almost see the Stars and Stripes behind him—the tattered banner flapping in the wind. Shifting his weight, Superman makes a fist and swivels right throwing a wild, play haymaker as he does.
“Ka-pow!” he says, giggling and spinning and tripping at the end, falling to the threadbare field of his little Earth.
He rises, still grinning. Returning hands to hips, Superman scans the room, wondering what he should do next. Fight crime? Save victims? One thing he knows: he’s tired of jumping off the couch, over the table and onto the rug. He’s tired of being Superman.
Turning to the TV, his blue eyes grow large and, suddenly, something beyond knowing—icy sapphires imbued with the magic of knowledge, or the knowledge of magic. Superman plops onto the floor. He sits Lotus-style, staring up at Spaceghost. Excited feet tap a Morse code on the rug. Rapt, Superman watches the black-coweled, white-suited hero.
The TV smiles back—the wispy touch of its radioactive fingers reflected on Superman’s boyish face and the wall behind him. Spaceghost smiles, too; when he’s not throwing punches or launching energy bolts from his wristlets, that is.
That’s what heroes do. They smile. They fight. They win.
Just so you know, Superman’s real name is not Superman. It’s not Clark Kent, Peter Parker, or Spiderman either. It’s not even Spaceghost.
Superman’s real name is Kevin Wallace, and Superman, Kevin, or whomever he is, may or may not be dead in twelve minutes. That will depend on you.
Kevin has been left alone, left to run and jump, to thump and play, but only as long as his mother Patrice needs to get to her interview at the KFC on Landrieu. Management Trainee, that’s what the ad said, and Patrice has been prayerful over it for the last week, wondering after whether her Associate’s would be enough to get her in the door, enough that she can back off the diner or the Kmart. A neighbor is downstairs in case Kevin needs anything. The neighbor’s name is Wendell.
Wendell is an auto mechanic. A friendly guy, good looking, charming even, Wendell is a guy Patrice sometimes fucks. There’s nothing serious to it but Patrice gets lonely. She’s twenty-six and sometimes she just wants to fuck. But with a four-year old at home, she’s hardly in a position to date. Fortunately, there’s Wendell. Wendell is thirty-one and sometimes, like Patrice, he just wants to fuck. One of those times for both of them was early this morning.
Post-fucking, Wendell has gone back to sleep even though he’s supposed to be awake. Wendell has gone back to sleep certain Kevin won’t need anything from him, even more certain that this is his day off from replacing worn-out filters and hoses and listening to people bitch about how much he charges to replace worn-out filters and hoses.
Even though Wendell is lying to himself, thinking that his day off is a time for sleep rather than action, his belief that Kevin won’t need anything from him is correct, more or less.
Whatever happens to Wendell will predate whatever happens to Kevin. Which means that Wendell will be the one who really needs something from Wendell or Kevin or whomever. Not that he’ll necessarily get it. But he’ll need it just the same.
That something could be courage or luck. It could be another thing entirely, vivid if only in the urgency of its absence, a need that has lingered undefined Wendell’s entire adult life, the specter of what should or could or might have been, lurking in his mind.
That may sound heavy; but don’t worry. Wendell’s fate will not depend on you. Your conscience should be clear. Wendell’s fate will depend on me.
A knock at the door downstairs. Superman hears but pays no mind. He’s a little kid. He’s watching Spaceghost.
Another knock and another, this time louder. More like pounding really; these don’t even register with Superman, or Wendell for that matter.
Wendell remains asleep; but only until he hears the boom crash crack of his front door being opened with shoulder boot shotgun-stock. Wendell has only a few seconds to react. Naked except for a red Coke t-shirt, he has enough time to reach for the .44 under his nightstand.
The gun belonged to Wendell’s father who was a cop. Wendell’s father is dead. The gun is loaded, has been since his father died, loaded except for one shot, the last shot his father took, the one that missed the guy who killed Wendell’s father.
Voices and steps rush through the apartment. Wendell stands now, behind his open bedroom door, waiting. He cuts a comical figure there, wearing his red Coke tee and nothing else, brandishing a big, black gun, his dick shriveled to the size of a Chapstick.
Wendell is scared, unsure precisely what to do, though he’s starting to get a feeling he might know, a feeling that makes his gut turn a few clicks to the left, then a few more, and a few more, leaves his head high and giddy, almost like it has a will of its own, like it wants to separate from his neck, go careening around the room like a wild, deflating balloon.
Other than the gun in his hand, and what he may have to do with it, Wendell is sure of only two things at that moment. He knows who has come and why.
Wendell lost last weekend and the weekend before that and on and on into what began as another down but soon became fifty thousand, what now seems a bottomless sea of loss, regret, and the knowledge that he would do it all again if he could, the hope that if the bets could take place just once more he might double down, change his destiny, and regain the faint, hazy certainty that he remembers from his childhood.
The steps in the living room turn towards Wendell, and he realizes that he has forgotten something. He has forgotten that his father’s gun is missing a bullet. Obviously, he doesn’t want to threaten someone without a bullet in the chamber, but he doesn’t have time to check. He can hear the voices—the thick, smoky, gangster voices—the steps heavy and booted…all moving towards him.
“No…ah, wait a second.”
They are coming now, through the hall, towards the bedroom. Wendell counts the footsteps of three men. He looks at his gun, wishes he could tell where the empty chamber is; realizes he’s about to play a sort of reverse Russian roulette.
Two of the gangsters—call them Gangster 1 and Gangster 2—rush through Wendell’s open bedroom door. Both wear black ski masks.
Wendell fires. He hits Gangster 1 in the side of the head, just above the ear, kills him before he can turn towards the bullet. Relieved, giddy, Wendell aims at Gangster 2 and fires again. He draws a blank. That is, his gun, rather than his memory, fails to fire.
Gangster 2 wheels on Wendell as Gangster 1 falls, and Gangster 3 (also wearing a ski mask, also black) storms into the bedroom. The two remaining gangsters shoot nearly simultaneously, one for Wendell’s head, one for his heart.
Both hit and Wendell falls back against the wall before he can fire again. Slumping to the floor, he leaves spatters of red, spider webs of dripping crimson, at six and four feet. Wendell isn’t dead yet, but he will be soon.
By the time he gets to King Memorial fifty minutes later he will be D.O.A., and the gangsters will be long gone, Kevin’s mother, Patrice, returning from her interview, feeling as though it went well.
Patrice met with three people, the full slate. Maybe she will get the job. Maybe she will be able to send Kevin to pre-school, someplace he’ll be safe, someplace she won’t have to worry about what’s happening when she’s away.
She knew it was a risk leaving Kevin with Wendell, a risk that would have made her cry if she’d let it; but she had no choice; she has no choice. She is, after all, doing it for him.
Patrice is doing it for you, too. She’s doing it so you won’t call her welfare mother. She’s doing it because it’s what she has to do.
Try not to look down on Patrice, as hard as it may be. Try not to judge her. Her fate is still in your hands, just like Kevin’s.
Wendell’s is not. Wendell’s fate was in my hands. But Wendell is dead now, and nothing can bring him back. Not even me.
Like the tin god of an unsmiling universe, I wrote this story, shaped this reality. I knew it was wrong. I knew it was right. I knew that it had to done. Now, it’s almost over, and what do I have? What can I say?
In the apartment above, Spaceghost hits commercial. Superman hops up onto the couch. Ready to fly again, he prepares himself and leaps, clearing the coffee table in yet another brilliant display of living room gymnastics, a show that would impress Superman’s mother and maybe even the gangsters if they could see it.
Thump, thump, thump, are the sounds Superman makes as he hits the floor. He smiles and laughs, the giddiness of a four-year old’s seemingly boundless opportunities brimming behind blue eyes.
Despite everything around him, despite the dirt and death and the threadbare geometry of the living room rug, Superman is happy. In the concordance of his life, this is the happiest Superman will ever be, a gift from the gods, or you and me–or perhaps nothing more than luck, the anti-calculus of random, unsmiling fate. Steadying himself, Superman strikes his pose, hands on hips.
“Ka-pow!” he says again, punching the air, returning to his posture of hands on hips, the pose that says, “Truth, Justice, and the American way.” The pose that says, “This is morning in America.”
“Somebody’s upstairs,” says one black mask to the other.
“You think they heard?” asks the second.
“Does it matter?” the first replies.
Kurt Baumeister’s writing has appeared in Salon, Electric Literature, The Weeklings, and The Good Men Project. He is currently seeking representation for his debut novel, a literary thriller entitled PAX AMERICANA. A graduate of Emerson’s MFA program, Kurt lives in Virginia.
–Art by Menerva Tau