NEW FICTION: Mid-Life Crisis
February 6, 2006
Here's a tale that was initially started back in December 2003 (the original, unfinished version can still be found in the Wide Awake archives). Much of the original first half has been reworked and rewritten. As for the second half, well, until last week it didn' exist. This story took a long time to complete, mainly because I'd gotten blocked after finishing the first two sections. But, being a completist, I did want to see it to its logical conclusion. It took a while, but I finally did it...
Fifteen years is a long time. It may not seem long when measured against, for example, the age of the universe. To the universe, which scientists estimate to be approximately 11 to 15.5 billion years old, 15 years is the cosmic equivalent of a yawn, the batting of an eyelash, or the lick of one’s lips. But to those of us not involved in the study of globular clusters and Hubble constants, 15 years is a long time. And 15 years ago, when I first entered into the “profession,” I was, like most of us, young, egotistical, and seemingly invulnerable.
Twenty-seven gunshot wounds, trace radiation poisoning, twelve fractured bones including two compound fractures, a shattered collar bone, the loss of vision in my left eye, six concussions, a complete blood transfusion, and sporadic lower back pain caused by advanced degeneration to my lumbar spine have pretty much disproved the “invulnerable” theory while simultaneously sand-baring the H.M.S.. Egotist. I’m young, relatively speaking, but not young like I was 15 years ago.
Where to begin?
In 1988 at the age of 24, having completed a “formal” education at a respectable east coast university, I relocated to New York. My first love was film and film criticism, though I never had enough confidence in my writing acumen to pursue it as a career. Thus I’d majored in business and, after completing my LPA certifications, found work as a mild-mannered accountant for a major metropolitan newspaper. I couldn’t afford to live within Manhattan proper, so I resided in a modest, one-bedroom apartment in the suburb of Far Rockaway. I commuted into the city daily, usually taking the 31 bus or the A train.
Despite what is often depicted in the world of four-color funny books or “graphic novels” as they became known in the late 20th century, those individuals like myself, who lead dual lives do not “fly” to our day jobs and make rooftop changes into civilian clothes. While this sort of cavalier behavior may have once existed in the past, the truth is, today’s cities are far too crowded, with too many people owning too many camcorders and cameras with telephoto lenses, to permit such reckless behavior. It’s indeed a dangerous predicament to find one’s double-life exposed before a curious, invasive public and a corporate-controlled media whose only function is to destroy and debase the lives of others.
So yes, like the multitude of men and women who comprise New York’s vast work force, I commuted to the office each day in traditional commuter fashion. Although I preferred the bus, I typically took the underground A simply because it was more efficient. But I seem to be diverging too much into the past and over silly specificities not really relevant to the advancement of this particular narrative. Fifteen years may be a long time, but it doesn’t lessen one’s penchant to ramble.
On July 15, 1989, I became Crisis; it’s a date I remember well. Trust me, the peculiarities of this metamorphosis are unimportant, and if you’ve read a half-dozen action-hero “origin” tales in your lifetime, then you’ve probably heard it all before anyway. And like those muscle-bound, long-underwear-sporting do-gooders, I chose an alias—Crisis. It seemed appropriate, and to the best of my knowledge, no one else in the business was using it. So I took it. I didn’t decide upon it right away. I’d actually been saving lives in disguise for 2, maybe 3 weeks, before being struck with the notion of concocting an appropriate eponym.
One of the first New York Post articles to report on my activities featured the headline “Crisis Averts Crisis” with a subheading of “Who Is Crisis?” The incident occurred during the morning rush of September 21, 1989, and involved an explosion in the inbound lanes of the Lincoln Tunnel. You probably saw photos of it on the evening news. The blast ripped through the overhead support structures and would have likely caused the entire structure to collapse. But I fixed it in four, maybe five seconds—it’s been a while and my memory is, at present, less than perfect.
And that’s the point.
Not long ago (but what seems like a lifetime) I stood at 405 Lexington Avenue, specifically, atop the Chrysler Building. The 1046-foot skyscraper was a haven for people like me. You’d have to be in the business to fully understand, I guess, but it has a lot to do with the isolation of standing atop the huge metal gargoyles, the rush of the skyline at night, the feeling of being, if you’ll pardon such an obvious cliché, on top of the world. It’s a feeling that few will ever experience, an exhilaration like nothing I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve been there dozens of times. It feels…sensational. I breathed in the cool evening air and filled my lungs with the scent of New York. My time in the Big Apple isn’t long. This much I know.
The world is different to me now. It looks different. And don’t bother making the joke that it’s because I’m seeing it with only one eye—the vision loss occurred in 1991. No, something’s different. I’ve done the hero shtick for a long time. Fifteen years. A cosmic nose twitch to those at the European Southern, Carnegie, and Mauna Kea observatories, yes, but a long time in the life of an ant like me. The adrenaline rush I once felt flying through the city’s subway tunnels at speeds in excess of 150 miles per hour at 3:00 a.m., the friendly warmth that radiates across my jaw whenever twin bolts of electricity escape from my fingertips with William Tell precision to bring down an enemy, the elation I once felt upon saving the life of an innocent—these sensations now hold as much interest to me as watching Nick At Nite.
So I don’t do it much anymore. Instead of metal skyscrapers I spend most of my free time with Sarah or engaged in reading the likes of Washington Irving, Studs Turkel, or William Shakespeare. Yet I feel torn. Torn between the life I’ve lead for so long and a life that doesn’t involve a dual identity. And I guess what I find the most ironic is the realization that I, Crisis, at mid-life am in the midst of a mid-life crisis.
Who says the universe doesn’t have a sense of humor?
It was Sarah’s idea to leave New York, to say das Lebewohl to the east coast and the seasons. It’s not that I was reluctant about LA, it’s that I was adamant about staying in New York. The city was to me as it was to Woody Allen in Annie Hall or Manhattan. But if you knew Sarah, you’d understand. She has a certain sly persuasiveness beneath her seemingly innocent green eyes. When she suggested we visit LA in December ’01, it never occurred to me there was an underlying reason. When she recommended we say adios to the big apple I assumed she was joking.
I’d said in my best Alvie Singer voice, “Who would want to live in a place where the only cultural advantage is that you can turn right on a red light?”
Her life was New York as much as mine. She knew what New York meant to me—what it meant to Crisis. She knew and accepted my lifestyle, rarely showing fear or concern, always, like myself, confident that at the end of each night, like the rising of the morning sun above the Atlantic, I’d climb through the skylight and spoon against her sleeping body. And I did, usually. Though I of all persons should have sensed the raison d'être for her flight reflex.
Two months before the LA visit I underwent an MRI. I’d been having intolerable back pain following a rematch of an altercation with a super-criminal known as the Bad Seed that occurred one week prior to Halloween. The Bad Seed and I had a bit of a history. Not a history akin to Elliot Ness and Al Capone, Ahab and Moby Dick, or Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless for that matter. No, the history between Crisis and the Bad Seed was brief, albeit magnificently violent.
I first encountered the Bad Seed in the fall of 1998. He was attempting to rob the First National Bank of Manhattan; I was attempting to stop him. He shattered my collarbone and fractured my left femur—there were other injuries, but those were the ones that mattered. I’d inflicted similar damages, puncturing his right lung and shattering his spine atop a wrought iron fence. Most importantly, I succeeded in stopping him. The Bad Seed (a.k.a. Francis Shippington) was tried in Federal court following a lengthy rehabilitation, and subsequently sentenced to 40 years in a maximum-security prison.
However, a few years later and one week prior to Halloween he escaped, and immediately began searching throughout the city for me. There was no subtly to his actions. On the third day following the Bad Seed’s escape he fashioned a banner across the intersection of West 42nd Street and the Avenue of the Americas, adjacent to Bryant Park. The hand-painted sign boldly proclaimed “CRISIS SHOW YOURESELF.”
So I did.
We met the following evening in a blistering rain above Park Avenue at East 88th Street. I held my own for all of seven seconds, just long enough to compliment his spelling acumen and land a solitary blow to the jaw. He was neither amused nor fazed. His first blow sent me spiraling out of control several blocks northwest where I crashed through the rear windshield of a Pontiac Grand Prix idling in a gridlock on the Central Park East Drive. I’d not nearly recovered when he struck again, lobbing me across the green and into the Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis Reservoir with as little effort as a child might discard an unwanted doll. A moment later he struck a third time, gloved hands around my neck as we sank to the reservoir’s murky bottom. He wasn’t trying to drown me so much as snap my neck.
“Do you have any idea what you did to me—to my life?” he asked.
I would have answered but for the thumbs pressing into my larynx.
“They kept me in a cell no larger than a coffin. A coffin! I have an…aversion to enclosed spaces.”
He continued to ramble on but I couldn’t hear him. I began fading in and out from exhaustion and oxygen deprivation. At that moment I realized I had but one option. As my lungs began to fill with mud-water I released the electricity from my fingertips. It wasn’t intended to be a killing charge, merely enough to escape the madman’s stranglehold. I fought my way ashore and collapsed, coughing up water and blood onto the lawn. When I looked up he was there, standing above me, his body swaying. I braced myself for the killing blow, but soon realized he was no longer capable of delivering it—the electrical charge had caused respiratory paralysis. A moment later the Bad Seed dropped to the ground in cardiac arrest. I hadn’t the wherewithal or strength to perform CPR, and none of the onlookers seemed interested in helping. It was all I could do to remove a six-inch dagger of windshield from my side and stagger away. I remember phoning Sarah and asking for help. I don’t remember much after that, aside that Mary-Jean, a close friend and physician, was awakened from a presumably sound sleep. She sutured the lacerations, more than fifty in all, and recommended the MRI, the results of which were less than favorable.
I was advised to avoid “heavy lifting” and “strenuous physical activity,” which would have been fine had I been sidekick to the American Dream. But as a headliner, I realized I’d little choice but R&R followed by intense physical therapy sessions.
Sarah and MJ suggested I seek psychiatric counseling. It was the first time I’d ever killed a man, and they were concerned about my post-homicide mental well-being. I conceded. Not because I felt an analyst was needed, but to placate their worries. My therapist, a staunch Freudian, began our initial session by asking, “So, how long have you felt this need to fly?”
“I don’t understand the question,” I replied.
“This need you have—to dress up in a colorful costume and fly around the city. How long have you felt this need?”
“It’s not really colorful, my costume, I mean. There are only two colors, one of which is grey which, technically, isn’t a color.”
“Do you dream in color?”
“I dunno. Sometimes, I guess.”
“What do you dream about?”
“Normal stuff,” I answered, not quite sure why I’d chosen that particular adjective.
“Normal stuff,” he laughed. “Such as?”
“You know—clouds, rainbows, powers.”
“You said you dream of powers.”
“No I didn’t. I said flowers. Clouds, rainbows, flowers.”
“When you killed this, this man, how did it make you feel?”
“I dunno. I wasn’t very cognizant at the time.”
“What about afterward?”
“I felt, I guess I felt badly. I didn’t really have a choice.”
“We all have choices.”
“Sure. Technically. I suppose I could have chosen to give up, to let him kill me.”
“You have a death wish?”
“Of course not. That’s why I resisted, and that’s why I ultimately killed him. It was kill or be killed, as the cliché goes.”
We talked a bit more, about dreams, masks, violence, and the effectiveness of soy paper as a seaweed substitute in sushi rolls. I wish I could say I left with the feeling that a giant weight had been lifted from my aching shoulders, but really, the only thought that raced through my mind as I stood on the crowded A was that my his services weren’t worth the $20 co-pay, much less the $130 he’d be billing my insurance company.
I explained to Sarah that I felt fine insofar as what I’d done to the Bad Seed on that rainy night. We agreed not to discuss it further, but soon her demeanor began to change. It wasn’t an obvious, glaring metamorphosis, but it was a change nonetheless. An air of concern shone through her pale green eyes; a look of doubt resonated in her smile. So I should have known there was an unseen reason when she suggested the LA trip. Still, when she flatly suggested we relocate as we sat in the crowded coach seats of the U.S. Air 737 en route to LaGuardia, I think my acquiescence was largely due to giving her a break from it all—from the heroics and theatrics, from the death and danger. To just be myself, without the mask. To let she and I be ourselves. To, perhaps, at last, start a family of our own, though I wasn’t quite sure I was ready for that particular conversation.
“Please, let’s go. Let’s go live there,” she pleaded.
“Yes, of course,” I answered, adjusting the beverage tray of my seat.
“Uh-huh,” I said, shaking my head in affirmation.
And so with very little fanfare, we spent the first few months of 2002 arranging the finer points of our west coast relocation. Our belongings were packed, our mail forwarded to a PO Box in Santa Monica, and our car loaded up with luggage and two cats that were more skittish about travel than a dozen agoraphobics. We left New York on a snowy morning in March and arrived in Los Angeles day days later where the sky shone blue over the Pacific and the temperature hovered in the upper 60s. I stared at the tall palms that lined the streets along Wilshire in Beverly Hills as the realization that we were a long, long way from New York slowly sank in like a worm weaving its way out of a big apple. And although the sky was cloudless, a storm was coming.
There’s something uniquely rewarding about working from home. It isn’t just that my commute consists of merely walking from one room of the house to another (though given the traffic nightmare that are the LA freeways it certainly was a perk). Nor is it the fact that every day is casual day at the office. More than these rudimentary incentives, it’s the predictability of the work, of knowing who your coworkers are (or aren’t). And it’s the freedom to create a schedule that needn’t conform to any sort of Monday through Friday nine-to-fiveness. Sarah doesn’t mind what kind of hours I keep as long as I end up by her side asleep at night. Usually I do.
We’ve celebrated three Christmases in LA, each of them gray and rainy. I shouldn’t complain; about the only rain we’ve seen has been during the Christmas holiday. Otherwise it’s typically sun followed by more sun with occasional bursts of sun. And there’s plenty of time to get a tan (even though my skin is mostly pale) because the LA crime-fighting scene is a huge departure from New York. First, there’s less of it. I mean, there are plenty of criminals; but most of them are your average thugs whose aspiration waters seldom run deeper than petty theft, breaking and entering, and the occasional car-jack in Torrance. There’s little in the way of masked super-criminals, and the Los Angeles Super-Hero Syndicate, a team of unionized crime fighters who, even though they’re super-heroes, still have to drive to an office each day, brings most of those to justice.
The lack of super-villainy in LA doesn’t bother Sarah. She hasn’t had to mend my costume (or me) in 13 months, and she sleeps easier knowing that I’ll almost certainly be returning home each night with nary a scratch. We live on the LA’s west side. The last super-villain known to frequent the west side was Beach Comber in the late 1980s. Because we’re not inland, a good portion of my evening is spent getting downtown to where the “action” is. It’s a hefty 18-mile jaunt. I used to fly it, but it got to be too tiresome.
On especially slow nights I’ll sometimes converse with other LA super-heroes also out on patrol. The non-flying types always ask the same question—what’s it like to fly? When I tell them it takes considerable effort they always look surprised and a bit disappointed. Everyone seems to think that flying is something that just, well, happens. They watch movies like Superman and think, “Oh, it’s just like walking.” Though I guess in a way they’re right, but try walking 18 miles. It gets to be a bit much. That’s what flying’s like. A mile or two, heck, even three, is no problem; same with sporadic flight. But 36 miles round trip is a completely different matter. So these days I take the 10 East, or Pico, or Venice and I drive downtown. It’s cheap enough to get garage parking at night; I keep the wagon parked near the rooftop. Just makes coming and going all that much easier.
LA boasts a captivating skyline. Anyone whose ever driven downtown or along the 110 would be lying if they said otherwise. It can’t compare with New York, of course. But it’s breathtaking nonetheless. I tend to spend more time near Olvera Street or Little Tokyo than I do in the city. Some of the downtown architecture—like the freakishly postmodern Walt Disney Concert Hall—is simply uninviting from a perch perspective. There is, however, nothing quite like LA’s circular Library Tower. The tallest building west of Chicago, its rooftop is frequented by super-villain and hero alike. It was, in fact, from atop this historic landmark that I first caught sight of them 13 months ago—the last time Sarah had to mend my uniform.
Los Angeles was in the midst of its annual “June gloom,” a time when the skies never seem to clear and the rain never seems to fall. I stood, early evening, on the heli-pad of the 1,018-foot Tower eating a mixed-cheese sandwich on rye that Sarah had packed for me. In mid-swallow I felt the building begin to tremble, softly at first, and then violently, which I knew was no minor feat given that it had been built to withstand an 8.3 earthquakes. And, indeed, it seemed as if an earthquake had come to LA. I looked down, expecting to see the streets and sidewalks splinter before me. But quite the opposite occurred. It wasn’t the ground below which was trembling, but the sky above. I stared, disbelieving at first, as the overhead sky began to dismantle itself. The clouds began to recede into one another, becoming increasingly impacted with each second that elapsed. Soon there were no clouds, only sky, but it, too, along with the air, soon followed suit. The tearing of the upper atmosphere was like the simultaneous explosion of a thousand-thousand explosives. The sound was becoming unbearable and I pressed my palms against my ears for a brief respite from the noise. A shimmering light suddenly appeared from within the center of the parting; I watched, slack-jawed, as they stepped out from the intense brightness.
They descended, then, as the sky began to close and the clouds slowly reformed, plunging to a height of just over 1,000 feet, slightly above where I stood and where my sandwich, which had fallen from my hand and onto the heli-pad, now rested. There was a definite transparency to them. Through my one eye I realized that I recognized the couple. I was certain I’d seen them on a Warner Brothers matinee when I was a kid, or perhaps on an old serial like Commando Cody. Regardless of where it had been, they were unmistakably familiar—he dressed in a 1930s suit that looked custom-tailored for William Powell and she in a petticoat that could easily have been designed for Myrna Loy. But it wasn’t Nick and Nora who hovered above me.
The air around them was arctic cold and I felt a chill race across my flesh as he spoke.
“I really missed this town.”
“It’s already forgotten us—it’s long since forgotten us,” she said in a voice whose forlornness was eclipsed by its underlying supernatural air.
“Don’t cry,” he replied, in a voice that was equally unearthly. “After tonight, Tinsel Town is gonna remember us for a long time.”
They began to dissipate, becoming mist and soon vanished into the evening air.
“Only in LA,” I said in stunned disbelief. It was an expression I’d heard countless times on sit-coms, in movies, and on the radio, but it wasn’t until that precise second that I grasped its meaning.
It occurred to me I could see my breath—the air around me had dropped to below freezing. I rubbed my gloved hands together for warmth and stared down at the half-eaten sandwich, half-tempted to pick it up and brush it clean, but finally deciding otherwise. Time enough for eating later. As they had vanished I couldn’t follow them, so I did the next best thing and followed the trail of cold left in their wake.
The path of cold air ended several miles west of downtown, on a crowded sidewalk at Santa Monica and Doheny in West Hollywood where the celestial couple made their dramatic reappearance and descended onto the sidewalk in front of the Troubadour music hall. No one seemed to care. The crowd, like anyone whose spent any time in LA, regarded the mysterious-looking duo as either just another advertising gimmick or a publicity stunt. Those perceptions, however, changed as one by one and in rapid succession both pedestrian and motorist collapsed.
Seconds after the couple’s appearance, a black SUV driven by a 20-something male collided with a second black SUV driven by an older woman setting off a chain-reaction that effectively blocked the eastbound lanes of Santa Monica Boulevard. Moments later, a similar accident blocked the westbound lanes. None of the drivers were alive to exchange insurance information, and most of the pedestrians who might have witnessed the accidents were, themselves, dying sudden and premature deaths. I arrived just as the last of the pedestrians dropped.
“How’s that?” the ghostly man asked.
“Wonderful. Wonderful,” his female companion replied.
“This is just the beginning,” he said, confidently.
I dropped to within 20 yards of the couple, levitating above them while cautious to get too close. The cold surrounded me and I felt that but for my costume’s insulation as well as my own unique inner physiognomy I’d have easily succumbed to unconsciousness or death. How then, I pondered, to confront the murderous duo.
“That’s quite enough,” I said, speaking stoically and with far more confidence than I actually possessed at that moment.
The old man turned and slowly gazed up at me.
“What are you supposed to be?”
I didn’t answer.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Enough talk,” the man insisted, and began to levitate toward me.
I dropped back and felt the surrounding air grow chiller. The woman rose along side her companion.
“Don’t go,” she said. “Please.”
“No offence, ma’am,” I replied, “but I feel as if it’s in my best interest to keep my distance. Why are you killing innocents?”
“You think this is about killing?” the man answered. “This isn’t about killing.”
“What then?” I asked, as a vague recollection began to form within me. I was certain I’d seen this couple before.
He laughed, as the chill air crept across the back of my neck like a like a dry sable brush over freshly stretched canvas.
“It’s about remembrance. About not being forgotten as this town—this world—has forgotten us.”
“I know you,” I said, the memory suddenly returning.
“Do you indeed?”
“Charlie McFee, though you were born Charles Macy Feinstein. You worked on Stagecoach to Serenity. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1953.”
“A bit part from a life of bit parts,” he replied derisively.
“Perhaps, but there were plenty other--Mississippi Prince, The Assassins of King George, A Summer at the Lake.”
That one brought about a slight smile.
“What about me?” his female companion asked desperately. “Do you remember me? I was a regular on Studio One and worked alongside Maureen O’Hara and George Nader in—“
“Lady Godiva of Coventry. June Addison, isn’t it?” I interrupted.
There was an air of excitement beneath the stone-death of her voice. The couple seemed suddenly shaken, as if their reason for being had been yanked out from under their levitating feet. Tears began to fall from June Addison’s ghostly eyes.
“We haven’t been forgotten.”
“No,” her companion answered.
“My God,” she said, her face becoming strained as she stared down at the havoc they’d wreaked. “What have we done?”
They joined hands and began to ascend ever higher, as if trying to flee the memory of their actions. A ghastly fear washed across both their faces. The spirits raced into the night sky, faster and faster, yet it wasn’t the clouds that suddenly parted, but the asphalt and blacktop of Santa Monica Boulevard. The pavement erupted like a flexed hand and I was clipped by a chunk of stone that sent me crashing downward, my fall broken only by the steel roof of a commercial moving van. An intensely bright beam of purple light shot up from beneath the earth and the couple that had ascended from heaven were pulled violently into its expansion and sucked inward like dust granules before a vacuum. Seconds later the beam retreated back into the earth and the road slowly reformed its original composition. I’d never learn how the couple had returned from the dead, but whatever pact they’d made it seemed to have been fulfilled. The cold that they’d brought dissipated. I stared at the bodies lined along the sidewalk of Santa Monica Boulevard desperately hoping they’d revive—that they were merely unconscious. I abandoned this hope when the final ambulance departed a few hours later.
“Going out tonight?” Sarah asked, as I powered off the notebook.
I’d just finished writing the first draft of the penultimate chapter of a manuscript critiquing the history of 20th-century American cinema.
“Be careful out there.”
“I know. That’s one of the things I love about you.”
We kissed goodbye and I walked out to the car and tossed my duffle onto the passenger seat. I looked up at our house as Sarah shut out the bedroom light. After idling for a few minutes, I shut off the ignition and walked back inside.
“Aren’t you going out?” she asked as I jumped into a pair of pajama bottoms.
“It’s a long drive to downtown. Anyway, I’m starting to feel like Crisis really isn’t needed in LA.”
“Really. The LA Syndicate can handle whatever crisis comes up. And if I am needed, I can always…”
“You can always respond. Of course.”
I slid into the covers and held Sarah’s hand.
“You sure you’re okay?” she asked.
“Pretty good. Anyway, I thought maybe we could talk for a while.”
“Um, okay,” she said, reaching for her glasses. “What about?”
“I thought maybe we could, um, talk about adopting.”
We talked long into the night. A few hours later the sun rose over the Pacific on another rainless LA day, with no immediate crisis in sight.
Next: Reflections on SGC's decade of publishing both in print and on the web.