Sunday, December 21, 2008

Giant Superhero Holiday Grab-Bag

A Mighty Marvel Yuletide Greeting! sang the red italicized lettering, situated within the yellow heart of a Christmas wreath that covered part of The Mighty Thor’s cape. The god of thunder was cast as a reindeer, tethered just behind The Incredible Hulk, who played a green-nosed Rudolph. They were careening across the rooftops of an unspecified city, large snowflakes falling all about them, the sky a midnight blue. Sitting in a green sleigh was The Thing, taking the role of Santa Claus, waving to all the boys and girls, as Spider-Man and Iron Man traversed the periphery. It was one of the Marvel Treasury Editions, a series of tabloid-sized paperbacks that had, since 1974, included an annual holiday collection of seasonal reprints. On the back cover, under a yellow banner that offered an additional “Season’s Greetings”, were assembled Captain America, Giant-Man, The Wasp, The Silver Surfer, Hawkeye, The Black Panther, and The Vision, looking more than ever like a red and green Christmas ornament. Steve Rogers and Hank Pym (the good captain and the giant respectively, to those uninformed), were both smiling broadly, the sort of smiles you find on posters in a dentist’s waiting room. So too was Hawkeye, and the Wasp, held high in Giant-Man's Kong-sized hand, like a seasonally-attired Fay Wray. The alien Surfer and the android Vision were wearing their customarily brooding glares, the holiday spirit clearly not registering in their searching souls. Meanwhile, The Black Panther sat on the edge of a snowy rooftop, his face obscured by his inky black cowl. I can only believe a man driven to sitting during such a celebratory occasion is a man with some holiday-related issues of his own – perhaps one too many pressurized family dinners at the Wakandan homestead?
     This was the publication I was holding onto, that inclement December Saturday in 1976, feeling a strange and horrible guilt, as my father and I drove away from Rishor’s, my favorite newsstand.

Then just thirteen years old, I was a shy and introverted teenager, one under the spell of a keen, if fleeting, interest in the superhero comic book genre. Like other such nerds, I spent inordinate amounts of time obsessively cataloging my personal archive of
Marvels, DCs, the occasional Gold Key, even a few Charltons I’d found orphaned in a local hardware store, the top half of their covers roughly torn off, a returns practice I wasn’t privy to. “Why did someone want just the tops?” I’d asked my father, not being able to accept his quick explanation, refusing to acknowledge how patently ridiculous my theory of some top-hording thief was. I would soon become familiar with the distributor system, the following year, when my older brother’s girlfriend would start working behind the counter at Rishor’s. A pretty, blonde cheerleader, straight out of a Riverdale malt shop, she quickly became a distracting element of my weekly trip to the brick-faced storefront, located on one of the snaky arterials that ran west from Main Street, in the city of Butler, a tired little huddle of homes and businesses, located some forty miles due north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
     Having pestered my father without cease that stormy late afternoon, imploring him that I was especially situated to judge the drivability of roads unseen, we’d set off one on of my periodical, periodical treks, my hopes high to find the latest issue of Ghost Rider
 or The Defenders. Little did I know, fidgeting with my seat belt, watching the sky shifting through varying tones of grey, that I would, in a few short moments, encounter something so unimaginably terrifying the memories of it would still trouble me, some thirty-two years later.
     It wasn’t our first shared meeting with horror. Only a year earlier, in Northern Quebec, we’d seen the dark shape of a man holding his young son, dying in the flame-filled cab of an over-turned hay truck, an image my mind still carries with it, like some morbidly curious panel in a faded comic book. But even that hadn’t prepared me for what I was about to confront, on a wet, snowy stretch of Route 8, the main road leading into Butler.

I’m not sure if my experiences with death and terror have been ordinary in this respect, in that they feature a quilt of memories, some sections as vivid as the screen of my computer, others as hazy as a long ago dream. I have endured, in the past, moments of physical conflagration where I appear to have momentarily blacked-out (scoring a goal in a soccer championship, extreme anger, an early sexual experience), a condition I now ascribe to a latent epilepsy. I have always assumed the patchwork bed of remembrance of this unfortunate afternoon to be subject to such gaps in recollection, if not complete consciousness. This would account for the wrath-like way I seem to move in these memories, like some ashen, caped ghost, floating from scene of horror to scene of horror, hardly feeling my limbs.
     “Stay in the car! Don’t move!” my father had ordered, undoing his seat belt, the car having come to a sickeningly abrupt stop. From the corner of my eye, I watched him open his door and tentatively step out, my attention on the wreckage and debris that now lay only a few feet before us. Sitting there for a long moment, more so out of an inability to move than in heed of the warning, I could feel my heart pounding against the ribbon of nylon strapped across my chest. I was reliving a devastating motion picture, one that had just burned itself, seemingly forever, upon the threshold of my awareness.

Two cars meeting at a right angle, doors bursting open as windows explode, seatbelts flapping about like seaweed in a storm, two bodies jettisoned free, as if the very atmosphere had sucked them out, limbs careening, turning head over heel as they shoot through the air, across a grey sky festooned with sparkling shards of safety glass.

     What compelled me to step out of the station wagon and disobey my father’s stern order I don’t know, my fear of being alone, or my fear of being left inside a car. By this time he had reached the adjoined vehicles. They sat crushed together, nose-to-nose, like brash lovers kissing in a doorway. I had watched him walk out into the center of the two-lane roadway, where a dark brown shape lay across the yellow line, so near I can still see the silver buckle on the man’s boot. It was the driver of the car on the right, the one that had suddenly pulled out of the gas station ahead us, directly into the oncoming vehicle. Whichever one of the two crossed the middle of the road I’ll never know, suffice to say there was a meeting of great speed with sudden obstruction, resulting in grievous harm, doing to the fallen driver something so unappealing it made my father, after stopping and leaning over the body, practically run on to the smoldering cars. It was this thought that gripped me, the moment before my senses must have gone numb, a curiosity born of the primal fear that had descended upon me like the heavy winter sky. On my spectral heels I floated, drawn to the crumpled body, set on its side like a sleeping dog. I can see the brown corduroy coat and the black leather boots, the dirty white fleece of the man’s collar, beside which rested a major portion of his head. The rest, a piece about the size of a grapefruit, hair attached, lay some fifteen feet away. I can’t see the blood involved. That aspect of the grisly scene apparently went right through the gaping maw of my disbelieving mind.
     Fleeing the overwhelming presence of death, I found myself moving towards the wreckage, where my father was busy removing the keys from the ignition of the empty car. As I came upon the second, I could see its driver still sitting, his neck slung to one side, as if it were broken. I then noticed the passenger of the first, his back to me, sitting on the wet road, his head between his legs, his palms slapping at the ground, making a strange cooing sound. As I took a few steps forward, he suddenly sat up, beginning to fall towards me. The rear of his head was a wild mass of black corkscrews, the untidy afro of a white man in his late twenties, wearing a plaid hunting jacket and flared blue jeans. Without thinking, I held out my hands and caught him about the shoulders, steadying him the best I could. He was like a bottom-weighted punching toy, wavering to and fro. I don’t know just how long I knelt there, staring into the thick nest of his hair, before the dark blood began to bubble up, a helter-skelter fountain that ran onto his jacket, warm as soup about my cold fingers. Just then I felt a firm hand upon my wrist, followed by a soft voice in my ear, telling me everything was going to be okay. I turned to see my school bus driver, a middle-aged woman with a motherly face. She took me in her arms and escorted me to the side of the road, where I began to notice other people, my father included, moving around the side of a school bus, as police sirens descended upon the scene.

When we finally got back into our car and strapped ourselves in, I was afraid to meet my father’s eyes. I was still numb. “We have to turn around,” he said, in a thin, distant voice, as if he were on the opposite side of very thick door.
     “Can we – can’t we maybe, maybe still go to
Rishor’s?” I asked, my voice no more than a squeak.
     “I really don’t think I can drive through Butler, Jem.”
     “Please, dad, please. You can do it – it’s not very far. Please! 
I won’t be a minute inside – I just want to see if any new ones have come in – that’s all.”
     I couldn’t help myself. I pestered and pestered him to take me, soon begging the point. It was as if the accident had never happened. He finally relented, driving around the half dozen flashing police cars that were assembled before a roadblock of burning flares. One of the officers gave us a solemn smile, waving us by. I think he was the one my father had spoken to, giving out his account of the accident.
     Only when I was alone inside the newsstand did I begin to feel the horrible guilt. As my eyes ran feverishly up and down the two spinning racks that provided the great majority of my weekly comics fix, it followed me, like the cold eyes of an accusing angel. Finding nothing new to buy, fighting the growing sickness in my stomach, my gaze drifted to the magazine rack where, among titles like
Heavy Metal and Fangoria, I saw the brightly-colored tabloid comic, Giant Superhero Holiday Grab-Bag, its festive cover imploring me. I knew it was just a selection of over-sized reprints, but I suddenly wanted it. Grabbing it, I dug into my pocket for the small fold of dollar bills that constituted my comic allowance. As I did, I looked up, seeing my father on the other side of the rack, reading a magazine, grinning at me, like some sad clown lost in a tragedy. He’d followed me in, a thing he rarely ever did.

“Did you get anything good?”
     “No, just this,” I sheepishly replied, lifting the tabloid to show it more clearly, as we pulled way from Rishor’s, the outside of my window thick with condensation, making the buildings of Butler look as if they were lying under ice.
     My father didn’t reply. Regarding the comic with a weak smile, both hands tight on the steering wheel, he turned back to the road, his eyes glistening.
     “I’m sorry it happened,” I managed, almost too quiet to hear, my eyes glued to the gaudy holiday fantasy sitting on my lap, wanting things to feel normal again. It was the last thing either of us said, the entire rest of the way home.
     The accident wasn’t even mentioned that night at dinner, even though I knew my parents had already discussed it, in hushed tones, as I sat in the next room, thumbing through the latest addition to my collection. Nothing was said about it the next day either, or the next.
     And not a word of it has been uttered between my father and I since, not all the days, and years, gone by.