Thursday, August 02, 2007

"This Never Happened to Superman" by Gerald So

Below is perhaps my most mainstream, hardest-to-place story to date. It was finally published in R.A. Rubin's Prose Toad in December 2005, and was archived there until the site apparently went offline.

Anyway, here's the story for your perusal and comment.


This Never Happened to Superman

by Gerald So



On my seventeenth birthday, Dad presented me with a nine-year-old shit brown Delta 88. Brown fabric sagged from the roof. A patch of wires sprouted where the horn belonged. But Dad said, "She runs good."

For the most part, she did. I had to ride out the occasional stall. A headlamp winked out now and then, but the Delta got me through college and ferried several friends along the way.

When the car died after a bowling night in Astoria, I saw no cause for alarm. Until about the tenth time the dash lights went orange and yellow and the engine just ticked. Looking away from the dash, I remembered I wasn't alone. I'd offered Paul Worthy and Jim Chiu rides home.

We were under an overpass with some streetlight. I popped the glove compartment and felt around. No luck. Not in the trunk, either. "Anybody got a flashlight?"

"You don't have one?" Paul said. "Your dad—"

"My dad customizes cars. I just drive them."

"I've got a light on my key chain," Jim said from the backseat.

Paul laughed. I might have laughed, too, if I had anything better to work with. I got out and looked under the hood, relatively clueless. The best I could think to do was push the Delta out of traffic.

Paul and Jim helped, but as Paul liked to say, he only looked athletic. And Jim's left side was much weaker than his right.

"How long since we left Erin's?" I asked.

"Maybe half an hour," Paul said.

Erin Eckhouse could definitely help with the Delta. We knew her from the college magazine, but on volleyball team her nickname was "Brick House." What was I gonna do, though? Stop here, run back and get her?

"Think she'd mind three guys for the night?"

"Aside from the two gays, erm, guys she lives with?"

"It's after one," Jim said from the rear. "She's gotta be up at six."

"Right," I remembered. "Let her sleep."

As we pushed on, a patrol car pulled alongside. We stopped and looked over.

The driver buzzed down his window. "Almost there." He hit the gas, and Paul gave him the finger.

"Fucking Astoria cops! Worst cops in the city."

"Seriously," I said. "Three guys pushing a car after dark. How do you know the car is theirs?"

I started tugging the steering wheel, edging the Delta into a spot. Then, stooping to catch my breath, I saw the parking meter. "I'm guessing twenty bucks' change for the night."

"Can I get some gum?"

I gave Paul my last stick of Extra and watched as he chewed and smeared it over the coin slot. "Sorry, officer. We would've put change in..."

"Brilliant," Jim said.

It was. It was also my last bit of free food. "Um, who else is hungry?"

Paul raised his hand.

"Vegetarian?" I guessed.

"Right on."

"There was a fruit stand," Jim said, "maybe three blocks before the car died."

The stand was still lit when we got there. An old man in a green apron was sweeping up.

"Is closed five minutes."

"Sir, our car—"

"Five minutes close."

No point arguing further. Paul started walking toward Erin's. The most restraint he'd ever shown. And it lasted all of two blocks.

"I know what this is," he said.

"What?"

"A parallel universe. Immobile vehicles, wayward lawmen, forbidden fruit—"

An all-night deli on the next block stopped him cold.

Jim asked, "Do you eat meat in this universe?"

"Go to hell."

Paul ordered an egg bagel. Jim broke a twenty for a pint of Tropicana. I went with roast beef on white. The deli was a chance to rest, but customer traffic robbed the place of heat.

"Damn take-out," I said, and Jim almost snorted his orange juice.

Paul nibbled his bagel, making sure he was last to finish. He wiped his mouth daintily, then said, "You don't think anyone would steal the car."

"Nah." But suddenly it was all I could think about. Once out the door, I broke into a run.

Paul caught up. "I'd like to report a stolen Oldsmobile Delta 88."

Jim played along. "Model year?"

"Eighty-four."

"Color?"

"Shit brown," I said. "There it is."

Scrambling in, Paul blew on his hands. "Little heat would be great right now."

I turned a dial and the vents made a death rattle. "Better?"

"Much."

I flipped up the collar on my jacket and hugged myself. I wanted to get us out of this without imposing on anyone, but I was out of ideas. I couldn't bring myself to say it straight out. "Options?"

"A," Paul said. "We take the train to my house. My mom drives you home in the morning."

"Is she working tomorrow?" I asked.

"Yeah. So?"

"What's B?"

"We spend the night with Erin, Tim, and Myke."

I snorted. "Hey now."

"Whatever we do," Paul said, "I'm gonna need cash."

After bowling, gas, and the deli, I was down to $35 and change. I reached for my wallet anyway.

Paul stopped me. He pointed to a Chase sign with his left hand and flashed an ATM card in his right.

I ran ahead to the bank, barging in as soon as Paul's card let me. "Come on in, boys," I said. "We got heat."

I did a few laps around the vestibule, grateful to get my blood flowing. "I could sleep here!"

"No way," Jim said.

"It's heated, dude. If I were a homeless guy with an ATM card—"

"—you wouldn't need to sleep here," Paul said.

"Good point. I have to pee."

Nothing was open by the bank. Around the corner was a phone booth. I dashed in, unzipped, and faked a call.

When I got out, they were waiting.

Jim said, "I thought you had to—"

"I did."

"Christ. What next?"

Paul wasn't asking literally, but I said, "Let me call my dad."

“Be my guest."

"Not here, wiseass."

"Then where?"

"Anyplace with heat and phones within five blocks of the Delta."

By the time we found Le Club Billiards, Jim was hobbling. I held one of the double doors for him, but he used the other.

It was impossible to look cool while wiping my feet. "Listen," I said.

"What?" Jim asked.

"Metallica."

Behind the jukebox was a corridor leading to restrooms and a pay phone.

I called home. After four rings, I thought I might just have to leave a message.

"You've reached the Rinaldi—Hello?"

"Dad, how you doing? What's going on?"

Nothing.

"I'm in Astoria. The Delta died." He didn't have to know Paul and Jim were with me. "Dad?"

"Where is it?"

I gave him the cross streets.

"Leave it there. I'll have it towed."

"Thanks," I said to the dial tone.

I slammed down the receiver. I promise to use this power only for good.

I laid out the plan, and Paul said, "Better call Matt."

"Oh, fuck."

Matt Sharp was editor of the college magazine. I'd promised him a ride to JFK for a seven A.M. flight.

Unlike with Dad, I wanted to explain things to Matt in person. Luckily, he picked up.

After I recapped the night's events, Matt offered to come get us himself. I was tempted, but Matt lived almost as far out on Long Island as I did, and didn't know his way around Astoria.

"Don't worry about us. Rest up for your flight." Before he could argue, I said, "Sorry about this. See you later," and hung up.

"You're so considerate," Paul said.

I pretended not to hear that. "You need to call someone?"

"Nope."

"You need to pee?"

"Yup."

The pool hall was warmer than the bank. The cold after it seemed much worse.

With a final check, we abandoned the Delta. Coming back to the overpass, I heard chugging. My eyes followed an R train until it disappeared.

"Last one for a couple hours," Paul said.

I started walking.

"Lovely night for a walk," Paul said.

I walked faster. A cab crossed the street in front of me. I stopped and waited for the next one.

"Fucking great plan," Paul said. "From here to the Island, cabbie's gonna charge us up the ass."

I held up a hand, not turning around. "You coming or what?"

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