Fiction by Christina Hu
Mom’s too old to be inquisitive but the kid is zooming around like this empty street is the best thing he’s ever seen. He has his favourite towel tied, Superman style, around his neck. Mom calls for him to slow down but he’s too busy running forward with his fist in the air. It’s a Sunday afternoon and Mom has errands to run. She likes her alone time every week, but today she can’t get a hold of the babysitter. The kid doesn’t mind: every day is a new adventure and he keeps his eyes to the sky. He likes seeing new things. Today he sees a guy hanging off a window.
The guy is on the window with a bucket of Clorox in one hand, a squeegee in the other. He’s standing on a repurposed door with a rope in each corner suspending him 23 stories in the air. He’s been wiping windows for two and a half hours and he’s not even close to done. These fucking new-age sky scrapers, they’re all huge planes of glass, nothing but a strip of chrome between them. There’s a lot to do and this isn’t his kind of work. He’s a handyman, one of those guys you can hire for a toonie an hour to do odd jobs. Usually he just does boiler stuff, but money is money.
“The head janitor quit,” they said. “We need someone to fill in, and everyone else has their own crap to do. Take over for him.”
Every time the wind blows, the guy can feel it whistle down his plumber’s crack, and every time he’s repositioned he’s crotch-to-face with some hotshot in a navy blue suit playing Candy Crush at his desk. His dirty jeans are always falling down. This was a bad day to forget a belt. He drops his Clorox and pulls up his pants by the belt loops. Big mistake. His bucket drops on its side, spilling cleaning fluid. He dives for the bucket, and all of a sudden he slips, trips, falls right off, the whole twenty story drop. It’s out of a goddamn cartoon.
The guy gets to see the world turn to streaks of grey and black. He throws his arms out, and for a moment he feels like he could just take off. This isn’t how he wanted to go, but it’s been a long time since he’s done any this impressive. He sees the kid on the floor, looking up at him with eyes the size of wagon wheels. He wants to tell the kid it’s okay, but when he opens his mouth it fills with dust and momentum. He lands face first, his mouth still open, the bucket clattering beside him.
The kid’s too young to be cynical, but 3 seconds is all it takes to convince him superheroes don’t exist. No one swoops in flying. No Spiderman safety net. Just some weird whistling sound, like sucking in air between your two front teeth, and a crash. A bash. Stuff out of a Ragu can spilling out of the poor guy’s head. His mom covers his eyes, but it’s too late.
The kid’s horrified. This is the kid who tells everyone he wants to be a superhero when he gets big. He saves his dimes to buy alter-egos and comic books at the joke shop. The kid didn’t grow up with Jesus: he grew up with a poster of Superman tacked to his celling.
Most kids look up to their dads when they’re 7. Not this one. Dad’s a flake: he walked out when the kid was littler than he is now. He left a houseful of unfinished projects, half-shod linoleum flooring, semi-painted walls, a pile of lumber nailed to a tree. He left his spare keys but took the nice car. Mom spent 36 hours sitting on the stairwell hoping, but by Tuesday she was resigned. Defeated. She bought a TV. She used to say television programming rots the brain but she now says she misses having a soft voice to keep her company.
Two weeks after he leaves, Dad sends a postcard from Hawaii— the weather’s great, sorry about everything, see you maybe! Mom throws the dollar store cardstock into the garbage disposal, buries her face in her hands. The kid tiptoes back upstairs and lies on his bed. What does he have left? He has a house, his mom, and Superman’s blue eyes and firm smile glowing from the poster above his head. The kid wipes his eyes – Superman wouldn’t cry at a time like this. He goes downstairs, holds his mom’s hand with both of his and says that he’ll still protect her.
The kid spends a lot of time launching off tree stumps trying to fly, and holding one man board meetings with a walkie talkie and his action figures. He carries waterguns, one in the hand, two in each back pocket, because to him trouble lurks and he has to stop it. Mom buys him all the new DVDs—something she said was too frivolous before. She’s working at home now, long hours in front of her laptop on the kitchen table, and every time the kid acts up she pops Man of Steel into the DVD player to keep him quiet.
The kid’s hooked. Watching a live action movie, real people and everything, is nothing like reading a comic book. For one, it proves superheroes exist.
The kid has had his doubts, but once he saw the movies, he knew it had to be true. Superman wasn’t just ink on comic strips; he was a real life person saving the world, the kid saw it on television, how could it not be true? He’s always wanted to catch a peek, a red cape fluttering, or a fist poking out of a cloud. After all those movies the kid understands; Superman is only there when you need him to be. Superman doesn’t waste time with tripping down the stairs or fishing balls off of rooftops, not when lives are at risk. He figures it’s probably a good thing he’s never been in peril, even if it meant he could ask Superman for an autograph, maybe an apprenticeship, some pointers at least. The kid’s sure Superman will show up when he’s needed though, because that’s what superheroes do. That’s what they always do.
But this time, no one comes. There’s a man on the ground with his head split and all the kid can do is watch from between the gaps of his mom’s fingers. His mom drags him away and he follows. She buys him ice-cream and expensive toys, something to wipe the taste away. He throws his Superman dolls into the garbage with their heads twisted off. The kid supposes that Superman was always too good to be true. How could he aspire to be someone who couldn’t exist? He is but a boy, and at the end of the day, Superman is still an alien.
The kid buys a new towel, black. He still wears it tied around his neck, but he doesn’t zoom, he glides, soundless. He’s ripped off his Superman poster, chucked it in the disposal. Now Batman decorates his walls.