The Champion crashed down through the skylight of the factory, scattering glass everywhere. In his battle with the fiendish men who'd stolen the plans for America's first fusion reactor, the Champion picked up huge metal boilers and hurled them at his opponents as if they weighed no more than rolling pins. Then he melted them with his heat vision and quickly froze the molten steel with his super-breath, encasing the villains' feet in metal for their easy apprehension.
After the Champion flew away, and the police came and chiseled out the bad guys, the scene was as quiet as a boxing ring after the fight was over and the last fans had gone home.
That's where I come in. The broken glass, the solid puddle of melted steel, the water from the boilers and everything else -- that's my job. When the superheroes leave, I clean up the mess.
It took me most of a week to undo the damage caused by the Champion's crime-fighting heroism. My crew and I swept up the glass, used jackhammers to remove the molten metal, got a truck to suck up the water and blood and general mess -- for no criminal comes out of these bouts against a superhero unharmed, it's only bloodless in the comic books -- and then the insurance men came in. A whole bank of machines, lying under one of the boilers that had been used as weapons, had to be torn out. Then we repoured the cement floor.
"I call this overkill," said one of my crew, Stevie, after the last of the broken machines had been hauled away on forklifts and flatbed trucks. "I heard those villains weren't even armed with anything more than automatic weapons. Why'd he have to smash all this shit up?"
"I think he just uses whatever tools are at hand," I said. "Here it was boilers. If this were a rail yard he might have thrown locomotives -- be glad for small blessings."
"If he's so super, why doesn't he ever stay and help clean up his mess?"
"Maybe he would," I said, "if he hadn't had to go up to Boston and break up that terrorist network, and then book on over to Ohio to help out on the election recount. There's just too much superheroing to be done, he doesn't have time for super-cleaning too. You're the super-cleaner," I added. I had recently read an article in Small Businessman magazine that said it wasn't a mistake to over-praise someone once in a while. Employees take it as a sign of affection, even if they know you're bullshitting. But Stevie just sighed and picked up a broom and joined the crew of sweepers digging bits of metal and concrete out of the corners.
Ever since the comet missed earth, then bathed us all in its radiant tail, things on earth have been topsy-turvy. The comet's tail gave a few people super-powers; almost all of them were good folks, though some were brighter than others. The Champion is one whose strength now outshines his mental acumen. If I were the one with the super powers, I would have just jammed the bad guys against the wall with my super-breath until the cops arrived. But he's got to throw stuff around like a toddler in a high chair.
Well, more work for me. Not that we're short of it. When I said the comet gave super-powers to a few, I meant that only relatively. It gave some kind of power to about one in a hundred thousand, which means that in metro New York alone there are now over two hundred people with super-powers. Over time, that's a lot of messes to clean up.
You'd think the comet would have created some super-criminals, too. And, in fact, a few miscreants were gifted with super-strength, invisibility, and the like. But none of them was given super-impulse control, so a lot of those guys quickly wound up their criminal careers in unexpected ways. Like Super Pimp. Super Pimp went to beat up his girls, but he didn't know his own strength. After he realized he couldn't slap them around anymore without killing or crippling them, he had no idea how else to control them, and they all -- the surviving ones -- went off to other pimps. One of them got a book deal: I Was Super-Pimp's Super Bitch.
Now they say you can find poor Charles Butt -- his real name -- down on Hollywood Boulevard, trying to impress the tourists. He can't get a gig to save his life.
Some other bad guys, a bunch of baby boomers who were all frat-boy types who had previously been failed day-traders and bad landlords, banded together and called themselves the Super Creeps, after the reference in the David Bowie song. The corresponding good guys were more artistic types who named themselves things like Major Tom and Action Man, called themselves the Young Americans. They had a nice clubhouse in Williamsburg.
My other favorite would-be super-villain called himself The Sender. He was basically a barfly and sometime bouncer, a total asshole who liked beating up people. When the comet came through he found he had the ability to teleport himself, or anyone else, to any location. He could send himself to Paris; he could send a victim to wherever. Now he could bully the whole world. All it took was: "Hey, watch where you're going, fella." "Fuck you!" and his victim would be teleported to Timbuktu.
Unfortunately his aim was a little off. One early evening he decided he wanted to go to Hawaii, willed himself in the direction of the setting sun, and found himself inside it. Oopsy.
Now most of the bad guys around with super-powers were jerkoffs who, before the comet, would have been mere petty criminals. Now they were super petty criminals whose misbehaving tended to happen while drunk. They would go on binges and hold up all the gas stations in Queens, say, then pass out. The cops would come and arrest the dudes they could hold; the ones with some kind of power that would be more trouble than they were worth -- like the guy who used his super-strength to rip open cash registers with his bare hands, and who would have been more than a little troublesome in jail -- they just ignored. But none of these guys stayed in jail too long; the jails were too full of real criminals who had been apprehended by the super heroes.
For those who weren't given super-powers, the comet had something, too -- a sort of increased will. Some people found they weren't as shy as they used to be. Some people quit their jobs and started small businesses or polka bands or the novel they'd always wanted to write. People left their families and made like Gauguin; there were a lot of one-way tickets sold to places like Tahiti and Bali, places which were now complaining they had too many penniless Westerners (the only people who could afford to fly out there in the first place). This had its bad side, too. Punks, thugs, petty criminals and gangsters found they had less impulse control. Where an ordinary man might suddenly cash in his IRA and open up that bar he'd always wanted to own, another guy might decide to get a gun and rob it. But that's all the robber has going for him -- no super strength, or speed, or anything. Nothing more than a guy who had gotten up his courage to make the wrong choice.
Take me. I was working at a bank, had worked there for eleven years as a database administrator. I was afraid to go anywhere near the water. After tasting the comet's fairy dust, I cashed in my savings and became a fair-to-middling surfer. When my money started running short, I looked around and realized that, with all the superheroing going on, there was a business opportunity.
All this whim-chasing worked out to a good deal of social upheaval. Since there were no more drones doing the kind of work I used to do, a lot of businesses had problems; fortunately, people like me were replaced by others who had always wanted to learn database administration, accounting, dentistry and other dirty jobs.
But the upheaval was real. You never knew when you might run into a nut with a gun, a gorgeous naked chick into free love, or just some poor sap who'd been crippled in a weekend football game he was too old for. It was like a large segment of society had, for better or worse, lost its common sense.
Good thing we had those super-heroes.
"Guess who I ran into," said my girlfriend Kathy, as we lay in bed one night after making love. "Shannon Casey. You remember what she was like when she was my roommate -- nervous, always hovering over her little potted plants, changing her major. Well, has she changed. I ran into her at Whole Foods -- she has the whole rich bitch thing going, dyed blond hair, a white sweater, this purse on a long gold strap, and she had a dog in the bag, I swear to God."
"What happened, she marry a real estate mogul or something?"
a real estate mogul. Does mogul have a feminine form? -- just as well. Anyway, she's as thin as a TV star and has had just about as much done to her tits. After the comet, she went out and got her real estate license and the rest is... "
"... another story of brilliant success," I said, echoing the tagline of a reality TV show devoted to following people whose lives were changed by the comet.
Then my phone rang. "Sorry," I said. She hates it when I leave the phone on when we're together, but a job's a job. "Oh yeah? Where? He did what? All right, we're on the way." I got out of bed. "Duty calls," I said. "Heat Seeking Man's heat vision just busted all the pipes around the Empire State Building. There's water everywhere."
"Oh Dave," she said. "Why can't somebody else clean up the mess tonight?"
"Somebody's gotta do it." That was my
tagline. I thought it was droll, but nobody else did. Nobody else even knew it was a tagline.
"And guess who else
I ran into," she said, as I got into my clothes. "This guy Tom I used to know in college. And I thought, you know, he would be perfect for Shannon. She had just given me her card, so I passed it along to him. He looked really happy."
"You're just a natural matchmaker."
I paged my crew to the location and set out on my motorcycle. It was no good depending on the subway. When the superheroes started tossing stuff around, the subway was always the first to go down.
When I got to Herald Square I found Stevie parking the truck. Water was a foot deep all over, and it had no place to go but the subway. See what I mean?
Stevie and I opened the doors to the truck. It was good to have him there. He was like a sidekick, like Robin to my Batman, without the weird father-projection stuff going on.
He picked up a lone mop and brandished it like it was a pioneer rifle. "Après le deluge -- moi," he said.
"I know." He said that whenever the mess was wet.
"You just need to get yourself a better tagline," he said.
I put in a call for some heavy duty pumps, generators and suction trucks. Of course Vacuum Man could take care of this job in nothing flat, depositing all the water into the East River, but he was in Sri Lanka the last I heard, taking care of a persistent land mine problem. Compared to that, a temporary flood in midtown Manhattan was just an interesting nuisance. There was always somebody worse off -- and that would do me no good as a tagline either.
We got to work.
That weekend Kathy and I went to a barbecue on Long Island. A guy named Jeff had worked for me for a year, then with the comet's blessing had decided to start a business of his own. It was just house painting but he seemed happy. If that doesn't sound like much self-actualization to you, consider that before the comet came along he was just a junkie. The comet had had an interesting affect on the drug-addicted population. About twenty percent of them dove headlong into worse addiction; they had nothing to hold them back; they mortgaged everything, sold everything, and took drugs like there was no tomorrow, since for them, there truly wasn't. When they were done, they were totally out of resources and in some of the worst shape human beings could be in. Most of them died shortly thereafter. The other eighty percent of drugs addicts shook it off like a bad cold and became productive members of society.
That left a lot of drug dealers short on customers, but like the addicts, most of them cleaned up their lives too. I had a couple of them working on my crew. One of them seemed perfectly happy pushing a broom and running a forklift; the other guy had a look in his eyes, the look of a man who knew that one day he would be a veterinarian. I'd already seen him drop everything to cradle an injured pigeon.
So anyway, we were in Jeff's back yard out near Great Neck. He had a nice place with a big back yard with trees at the back. On the other side of the trees was the Long Island Expressway, but it was still nice if you ignored the traffic noise. Kathy worked the crowd, going from group to group getting to know people and enlivening conversations. I had noticed her becoming more of an extrovert in recent months, and she seemed to be extra-extroverted today. She had a fantastic memory for names and facts about people, and sometimes she would introduce people who already knew each other as acquaintances, telling them things they had in common they weren't aware of, and every time she moved on to another group she would leave behind a knot of people excitedly exchanging stories, names of vacation spots and good preschools, email addresses and dates for next weekend.
"That Kathy, she's a real social lubricator," Stevie said. "I never knew this, but we went to the same junior high. And you know what, she likes Godard too. That's two or three things I know about her, ha ha!"
"Yeah, she's something," I said, watching her tilt back her head and laugh at something said by a guy on the crew whom I knew to be particularly humorless.
"A woman is a woman," Stevie added. He opened another beer and said with giddy satisfaction: "Numero deux!" He chugged half of it at once. "Whew," he said, wiping his mouth.
"Don't say it."
He swallowed what he was going to say -- that he was "Breathless" -- and shrugged. Just then Kathy completed her circuit of the party and came back to us. "How's it going, Stevie?"
He couldn't resist. "Tout va bien."
"And how many marriages have you arranged today?" I joked.
"One or two," she replied unselfconsciously. "Maybe three if they change the law on gay marriage."
"You should have your own TV show," Stevie said, "except ..."
"It's been done," she said, meaning the minor superhero from Chicago whose power seemed to consist in finding jobs for people who were self-actualizing and wanted to put their formerly latent talents to work. He started out calling himself the Matchmaker, and had a summer reality series on ABC, but now was relegated to an occasional segment on Oprah. "Besides, that's not what I do. It's not just pairing people up."
"What you do? What do you mean, what you do?"
"I'm self actualizing too," she said defensively. "You're not the only one who gets to start a business or something."
"Okay, I'm sorry. What is it you do
do?" I asked.
"I don't know yet," she said fretfully. I hadn't noticed until then, but she looked drained. "When is he grilling the hamburgers? I think I have low blood sugar."
I said I would get her some fruit salad and walked away toward the patio where the food was. The beer in the early afternoon was making me feel a little out of it myself. Behind me I heard Stevie asking her, "So who introduced you two?"
Just then there was a hush and I turned to see a man with a bloody forehead come through the brush at the back of the yard. People turned and stared as he stumbled forward. He walked right past a dozen people and went right up to Kathy, who had taken a few steps toward him. The place where they met was on a slightly raised point of the yard, and from where I stood on the patio I could see them outlined against the sky, the afternoon sun lighting up Kathy as she reached out to the man, who staggered into her arms. "We need help," he gasped.
"Okay, okay," she said.
Then there were more people making there way through the trees and up the slope, some holding their heads, some limping, and a couple carrying children. "Help, help," they moaned.
"My God, what happened?"
"The bus... to the Hamptons... crashed... turned over... people trapped."
"Good grief." Kathy whirled and saw Stevie, who had come up to help the first guy. "Stevie, find Dave, get the crew out there. You, Jessica, call 911 -- you know the address here? Tell them ambulances, fire, highway patrol, bus crash! Go! You ladies," she shouted at a group of women who had been comparing each other's PDAs and iPods a moment before. "Go in the house, find the linen closet, and take down all the sheets and towels and blankets you can find, and get them out here. Go, move!"
She gave all these orders still propping up the first injured guy, but now a woman came forward and took him off her hands and led him to a chaise longue, where she pressed a dish towel to his head. Kathy turned as all the other injured people came toward her. She stepped forward and touched each one and led them up the little hill to the yard. When other party guests walked up and tried to help, the crash victims would zigzag around them to head straight for Kathy.
That's all I saw before I ran off with Stevie and Jeff and the other guys from the crew into the trees. The wooded barrier between the yard and freeway was only about ten yards deep; then we came into the open and saw the bus lying on its side in the ditch, with cars stopping behind and in front of it. I told two of the guys to look in the woods for stragglers and led the others to the bus, where we helped passing motorists get the rest of the people out and through the woods to Jeff's yard.
When we got back, there were dozens of people spread out all across the yard, some lying on blankets, some just sitting with their heads in their hands. Party guests were giving first aid to a few, but no one looked particularly mangled and all things considered it looked like it could have been a lot worse.
But the thing that struck me when I took in the scene in the yard was the way all the injured people were spread out in concentric arcs, the most injured closest to the center, with the party guests busying themselves on the other side tearing up sheets for bandages and getting more food and drink for the bus passengers, and in the middle of it all, with people running up to her for orders and then sprinting away to carrying them out, was Kathy, her blonde hair shining in the sun, looking like a nurse-goddess from a World War I poster. She was standing in the exact center of all the commotion, bringing order to chaos. The people from the bus had somehow been drawn to her, they sought her out for help, and now she was directing everything from the center like a symphony conductor.
Then the firemen and medics arrived and they too went straight up to Kathy and asked her where the worst wounded were, if anyone was left on the bus, and if that weren't enough, some highway patrolmen came crashing through the trees and went up to her asking the same thing.
At first I thought, hey, who's the boss here? What am I, chopped liver? But then I realized what had happened. Kathy's powers were emerging. Something in her attracted these people, made her a connector, enabled her to align them all around her in a network of victims and helpers, with her at the center. Something in her -- the same thing that had been drawing her out, making her an extrovert, leading her to find connections with people, making her
the common thread of all the people at the party who would shortly fall in love, all the people on the bus for whom this might be a life-changing experience and lead to their own self-actualization -- this was her power.
When the emergency personnel had assumed command and the worst of the wounded were on their way to the hospital, and the food was running out and the sun was setting behind the trees, setting afire Kathy's golden head as she slumped into my arms in weariness and asked to be taken home, I led her finally toward the house.
Several hours had passed since I had mentioned getting her some fruit salad. "Did you ever get anything to eat?" I asked.
But she was turning again to look over the scene of the party-cum-rescue operation, the bowls of potato salad that had been scraped empty, the paper plates that were beginning to blow across the yard, the discarded makeshift bandages, the litter from the medics' health supplies.
"I didn't need to eat," she said. "I didn't think about it. I was filled with energy. Maybe just adrenaline." She looked at me sort of sideways, as if wondering whether she should tell me everything she was thinking.
I was dead tired myself, and I hadn't gotten any congratulations from the Fire Chief of Lake Success, New York, but I felt I should tell her what I saw. And as I described how the rescue scene had looked from the outside, with everyone gathered around her in almost magical circles as she directed the operation, she nodded gratefully.
"You saw it too, then," she said. "You saw me come into my power. Me in the center -- everyone around me all organized. But I'm not just -- you know -- Super Organizer or Super Matchmaker or something. It's more about being in the center, aligning people and drawing them toward me. That's why the bus passengers all came my way -- that's why everyone did what I asked without questioning." She straightened her back and seemed suddenly strong again. The last ray of sun caught her hair and she raised her hands. I felt a magnetic pulse center me in relation to her, and everyone else who was still standing around turned to face her at the same time, their faces calm and waiting.
Then my girlfriend Kathy said, in an other-worldly, comet-given voice: "I'm the center. I am... Locus."
I stood and stared as power seemed to flare in her. All the world seemed to be standing still, with her at the center.
Then the sun set behind the trees and the other people standing around gave themselves a little shake and resumed their conversations. A gust of wind blew picnic stuff across the yard. I looked at her and she was just Kathy again. She ran her hand through her hair and leaned against the frame of the patio door. "I could really use a nap," she said, turning away.
"Okay," I said, beginning to follow her into the house.
She stopped and turned and looked at me, an eyebrow raised. "Dave," she said. "Somebody has to clean all this up."