CHAPTER TWO: Midtown Comics
I watched Jesse Classen enter the coffee shop that morning but when he exited its doors not even forty-five minutes later, the burgeoning changes within him were already evident. Jesse and Kate walked to the 110th Street Station. He rode with her to Times Square before saying goodbye and transferring onto the 7-Train to Grand Central. For a Tuesday morning, things seemed particularly quiet. Grand Central Station was the nucleus of commotion in the world’s busiest city, but Jesse couldn’t place the sudden wave of serenity. He didn’t know what to make of Kate’s news that morning, but he knew that the man she married had never been quite right for her. He was just as uncertain of the contents of Tommy’s letter. Whatever the unremarkable envelope contained, it certainly had seemed important to him. But Tommy always had a way of blowing things out of proportion, didn’t he? It was something that Jesse and Kate had grown accustomed to. Was this simply another one of those moments or was it indicative of something much more? Jesse had to stop for a moment to process it all.
Of the three of them, Jesse had always been the one to dwell on mistakes made. He was the first one to regret poor decisions but he was also the likeliest to make such decisions, which is why Jesse was far more comfortable with being a follower. He knew next to nothing about New York when he and his friends moved there after high school, yet he followed Tommy blindly. He knew Tommy’s choices could always be trusted, no matter how preposterous or random they might have seemed. There were only a very few other things that Jesse Classen was completely sure of: seafood chowder, Will Eisner, and that one Savage Garden hit from the nineties that he still swore was great. He believed in the American justice system, but like the majority of Americans he clung to the hope that he would never have to be selected for jury duty. He also believed in Bigfoot, even though he knew there had never once been a shred of concrete evidence to support the creature’s actual existence.
Jesse was small in both presence and stature. He had a block-shaped head with a messy haircut and muttonchops he refused to let go of. He had the slight crater-like remnants of a bad acne outbreak in high school. At times he would display paranoid tendencies, afraid that somebody was trying to sneak up behind him. Nevertheless, he insisted on wearing the same square-framed prescription glasses with the wide arms that blocked his peripheral vision enough to make him misjudge his turns, and he would often find himself bumping into the hard corners of brick buildings.
Jesse had narrowed down his life’s greatest moment to the time he climbed up and balanced himself on the very tip of the Alamo, the black rotating cube that lured tourists onto its curious concrete island at Astor Place and Fourth. He, Tommy and Kate found the Alamo while wandering drunkenly around the city one night. Kate snapped a picture of him. In it, he appeared to be in the midst of a deft Karate Kid stance, but in actuality, he’d slipped and was making a failing attempt to regain his balance. He chipped his tooth when he hit the sidewalk and his nose had been wrapped in bandages for three weeks. But Jesse remembered the look in Tommy’s eyes as it happened: it was clear that Tommy had never been more proud of him. The photo had been taped to Jesse’s fridge ever since, reminding him of a time when he had been guided strictly by impulse.
Behind that photo sat a freezer full of chicken wings, just one of his culinary vices. At restaurants he could always be counted on to create new condiments with whatever ingredients were immediately available, be it chocolate-milkshake-and-Tabasco-sauce mustard or coffee-creamer-egg yolk-and-three-cheese-ranch salad dressing. His favorite candy was black licorice. His preferred literature was The Amazing Spider-Man. All in the Family had always been his favorite show as a kid. Edith Bunker reminded him of his grandmother, and coincidentally his grandmother had also died of phlebitis. He was a stickler for organization as his rather sizable collection of comic books attested. He liked to play poker, although he was not one for the particulars of the game’s intricate strategies. It annoyed his friends to no end whenever he referred to spades as “shovels” or clubs as “curlies.”
And whenever Jesse second-guessed himself, or when he was caught in moments of personal uncertainty, the world around him had always seemed to slow down a little, almost to a near-perfect silence. Which was exactly what was happening at that moment. But the hushed clamor of Grand Central in which he had found himself was seemingly much more than that. His intuition had never been recognized as being anything close to exceptional, but Jesse had to brace himself on a railing for a moment longer in order to help narrow down these feelings. His palms were cold and wet, yet his grip was simply mediocre.
Only the glistening mosquito-like tip of the Chrysler Building could be seen from the second-story window of Midtown Comics, but it was just enough to remind Jesse of how much the city could love him one minute, only to prick him the next.
For five years, Jesse had been the assistant manager of Midtown Comics, Manhattan’s preeminent comic book store. It was a career decision that had been grounded somewhere in the middle of childhood dreams and grown-up regrets. He had always been inspired to create art, yet he’d consistently been limited not only by his bank account, but also by his on-and-off again lack of self-confidence. Jesse dreamed of taking comic art and bringing it to life on a grand scale. Not in the ways that Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Donner and the Thanksgiving Day Parade had done before him, but to an entirely new level. Something different that he could never seem to put his finger on. Eventually though, Jesse was forced into accepting the simple life of retail in order to make ends meet. And his dreams had paid the price too; they were now only something that would probably be no more than a half-page addendum to his life story.
Jesse still owned the very first comic book he was ever given, a rolled up treasure found in his stocking one Christmas morning. Beneath its ratty, tattered cover there still existed the dozens of spectacularly patterned four-color images that had laid the foundation for his desire to experience New York City firsthand. But it wasn’t the drawings of Greenwich Village or Forest Hills or even the George Washington Bridge that stood out to Jesse; from the very first time he’d read his very first comic it was the simplest of details that he had noticed: the bold silhouettes of rooftop water towers; the colorful billboards with their cracked and peeling artwork; the kicked-in steel garbage cans; those portentous, ever-steaming manhole covers. This was the essence of what New York had been to him when he was a boy, and they were the very same details that he was quick to take note of the first day he emerged from Grand Central Station.
For more than eighty percent of his life, comic books had been the escape hatch from Jesse’s reality to the comfortable recesses of his inexhaustible imagination. The mysterious origins, the fantastic powers and the incredible weaknesses. His secret headquarters was actually the hollow tree in the woods behind his childhood home. It wasn’t Jesse who failed the tenth grade and had to repeat it the following year but rather his luckless secret identity.
Yet amid the dreams and desires and heroics that continued to linger inside Jesse, evil continued to play its part. And his name was John Galloway.
It was four years earlier that John Galloway first ascended the stairs of Midtown Comics. I recall how he stood out of place so perversely amongst the store’s usual rabble of consumers. This man of fastidiously cultured tastes, wearing a pin-striped suit and fedora rather than brightly-colored, oversized shirts and countless, varied facial piercings barely visible beneath greasy mops of hair. Like the one seagull amidst a sky full of ravens. Though it was far from uncommon for suits like his to make an appearance around such shops, even men of his remarkable age had been known to peruse the newest issues week after week, it was the feeling of the man himself that made those around him take notice. A business tycoon since he was twenty-five, it had been nearly fifty years since John Galloway had made his first million on Wall Street. And the smell of the U.S. dollar seemed to emanate from the crags in his finely weathered skin.
When Jesse had first taken note of the man, he realized the entire store had gone silent. The bustling street traffic outside faded away completely. He didn’t know what else to do but ask the man if he needed help looking for something. It turned out that John Galloway did need help: he wanted to speak with someone who would be interested in buying his collection of old comic books. He wasn’t really all that different from anyone else in the store after all; he just came with a few extra million dollars in his bank account. Jesse quickly came to realize that he would never be able to afford any of the books in John Galloway’s possession, but when he explained that he might know of some buyers who could possibly afford such a rare and sizable collection, Jesse was offered a business card nonetheless. And yet, when taking the card in hand, Jesse was instructed to come to John Galloway’s home and take a look at the books himself. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse. And in retrospect, it was easy to say that he probably should have.
And so I followed Jesse to Gramercy Park six days later. The modest townhouse was indicative of the money John Galloway had made, but it certainly did not stand out from its own tiny neighborhood of genteel 19th century mansions. Jesse knocked on the door, only to be met with silence. It was the same way the world often slowed down to an empty, hollow hush and tried to warn him of something he could never ascertain. There was a doorbell, but for some reason Jesse thought he should avoid it. He knocked again and fidgeted uncomfortably in the continued silence. He shifted his footing from his left to right and back again. I could feel the front steps wince beneath his uneasy balance. Instead of walking away at that moment, Jesse allowed himself the time to wait. He waited for the door to open, and by then, just as destiny is known to work, it was far too late to go anywhere.
Edith Galloway opened the door. She was a little suspicious of the drearily-clothed and shaggy young man in her doorway, the uneasy kid standing on her finely woven doormat that proudly read: The Galloways. Edith was comfortably into her forties. She was a woman who had an obvious familiarity with the elite tastes of Manhattan’s upper class, a lifestyle she had settled into through her marriage to John. But within her slender frame was a woman who desired something more. Many claimed there was a feeling about her; a feeling palpable enough to know that Edith Galloway could never be fully satisfied.
Jesse produced John’s business card and with stumbling words explained his reasons for being on the Galloways’ doorstep. He was graciously welcomed inside, Edith’s arm coiled around his shoulders like a playful python, and within ten minutes Jesse was on the Galloways’ fine European sofa sipping herbal lemon tea from an heirloom cup. Another fifteen minutes would pass before he found himself underneath Edith Galloway as she made her own intentions uncomfortably clear.
Jesse had not acquired any comic books on that visit, nor was he lucky enough to even catch a glimpse of the immense collection. What had come out of that visit was the triumph of Edith Galloway’s aching infidelity. Her marriage was not where it had once been, and Jesse was unfortunate enough to arrive on her doorstep the very morning Edith had awoken from such unsatisfactory dreams that she had made her decision: this would be the day.
Jesse had learned many secrets about John Galloway that morning, most of which were certainly not the kinds of tidbits one stranger would ever want to know about another. Information such as how often John would clip his yellowed toenails, or how much more often he did not. He learned that the man hadn’t had an erection since the Reagan administration and also that no amount of medication he’d ever taken had yet to help the dreadfully degenerative skin condition on his backside.
To all of which Jesse could only reply: “I just came to look at his comic books.”
And so began Jesse’s affair with the intoxicating Edith Galloway. It didn’t take him long to go from calling her ‘Mrs. Galloway’ to ‘Edith,’ and it took even less time for him to settle with ‘Edie.’ Neither of them was sure about whether or not the other was proud of the situation, but it continued nonetheless. Jesse had shared every detail of the torrid relationship with Tommy and Kate, and even though they sometimes joked about his predicament, neither dared to make mention of Harold and Maude or The Graduate. It was one of the hardest things Tommy ever managed, watching his tongue when there was a perfect joke to be made.
From the clandestine rendezvous outside Gracie Mansion while John hobnobbed inside at mayoral functions, to hiding in the guest room closet for three hours the one time John had come home unexpectedly, Jesse had quietly found himself woven into the tapestry of the Galloways’ upper class Manhattan lifestyle. For three years, Jesse was almost upper class himself, living vicariously through Edie’s personal bank account. Lunches, shopping, and even weekend getaways were all part and parcel of their surreptitious situation. Jesse remained in the same studio apartment on West 116th Street that he’d lived in since they first met, but thanks to Edie, he now had all of the most modern amenities imaginable. Prior to their relationship, there was no way he could have afforded his wardrobe, his computer or even his own dishwasher. Before Edie, Jesse’s apartment was mostly just a single bed and weathered boxes full of comic books. Even his Silver Surfer underwear had been traded in for Calvin Kleins.
Edith had also been responsive to Jesse’s artistic dreams. Through her financial backing, Jesse had spent a full year preparing for his first significant art show. He imagined people traveling to the city just to see it. The only unfortunate part was that the city in question was Jersey and not New York. Jesse’s art would be presented in a massive warehouse in New Jersey, in a space large enough to accompany the size and the magnificence of his work.
But of course it was inevitable that John Galloway would one day discover his wife’s secret. It seems these things are always inevitable. John had entered Midtown Comics and handed Jesse his business card, but it was through that card which he had also unintentionally handed the young man private access to his own life that the furtive relationship was ultimately revealed. And Jesse had sometimes wondered if maybe it wasn’t revealed intentionally.
Edith was never one to show much consideration for entertaining her husband’s concerns regarding her whereabouts, but there was a small shift within the tiniest of details on that inexplicably snowy October night. It only took a few hours for everything to change. As Jesse and Edith prepared to leave for the show’s opening, Edith had left a note behind for John. There was nothing suspicious written on the note. She was known to attend many art galas and other such festivities around town, but perhaps it was merely the existence of the paper itself that had aroused suspicion. In any event, John Galloway returned home early that evening to find the note, and he had made the critically uncharacteristic decision that he would meet his wife at the show.
From what I’ve been told, Jesse’s artwork met with ambivalent reviews, leaning heavily towards the negative variety. But it was both the entrance and the exit made by John Galloway that evening that would prove to be the most memorable for those in attendance. It had been nearly three years since John had handed his business card to the clerk at Midtown Comics, but he recognized Jesse immediately. Edith tried to stop him, but it was no use; his rage could not be arrested. And it was on that one snowy night that John Galloway would firmly cement his place amongst our hero’s rather insubstantial and mediocre gallery of villains.
The phone in Midtown Comics rang just like the old 60’s Batman theme song, and it distracted Jesse’s attention from the glimmering tip of the Chrysler Building. “Midtown Comics. This is Jesse.” He was so terribly sick of that theme song.
It was Kate. “Hey Jess. Busy?”
“It’s Tuesday Kate.” Jesse’s voice echoed in the empty store. “New books come in on Wednesdays, so Tuesdays at one-thirty are like a second-week showing of a Kate Hudson movie. There’s nobody here.”
“Pond Scum?” Kate asked. There were five staff members at Midtown Comics, one of which was a bulbous man-child named Pond, whom Jesse believed to have quite possibly the all-time most ridiculous name ever for a man. Another shining example of hippie love. Fortunately, Pond was also a good enough guy that he didn’t mind it when everyone would continually refer to him as Pond Scum. Probably because in his lifetime he’d heard much worse anyway.
“He’s on his lunch break. I guarantee you can spot him on Number Sixteen at this exact moment.” Manhattan had a number of online real-time cameras situated around the city. One of which was “Camera Number Sixteen,” located at the intersection of Lexington and 42nd, where there sat a perogi stand visited by Pond every single day. Kate was fascinated by these cameras, and had many of them running on her computer screen all day.
“Hold on…” Kate’s mouse clicked on the other end of the phone. “Oh yeah, there he is. Wow. Didn’t I see him wearing that same Elvira shirt last week?”
“That’s not Elvira, Kate. That’s Vampirella.”
“Whatever. It’s still inexcusable.”
Jesse’s neck was beginning to cramp from holding the receiver between his ear and his shoulder. He always held the phone that way, even though he also complained of neck pains. Part of the reason why Jesse still didn’t own a cell phone was because he couldn’t find one big enough to hold with his clavicle. Why did cell phones have to keep getting smaller and smaller?
The clicking on the other end of the phone came to an abrupt end. “Listen Jess,” Kate said. “I’m sorry about mentioning my problems to you and Tommy this morning. I don’t know what happened. It just kind of poured out of me.”
“It’s fine Kate,” Jesse assured her. The traffic outside seemed to slow to silence once more. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you complain about Gene before now. I think maybe you were over-due.” Jesse moved towards the giant cardboard Incredible Hulk that blocked the window. He peeled back the Hulk’s corrugated kneecap in order to take a peek outside, to make sure that life on Lexington Avenue had not come to a complete halt. But the city was still breathing.
“Jess. What I meant was that when I left you this morning, I realized that maybe a failing marriage wasn’t something you’d want to hear about. You know, with Edie and everything.”
Without a response, he looked west up 45th Street.
“I just wanted to apologize, okay? Whether I needed to or not.”
Jesse didn’t have anything else to say on the matter. Life persisted outside Midtown Comics, and that was enough for him.
“When’s the last time you saw John?” Kate asked.
“Not since that night. But I’m sure he’s still wandering around the city. Like the lonely little eye in the middle of the hurricane of delivery trucks and foot traffic. Like my arch-enemy just waiting for the right time to strike.”
“Don’t you ever wonder if he’s okay?” Kate asked.
“Not even a little?”
“Can’t you just admit that you’re still angry, Jess?”
“Of course I’m still angry. I didn’t think that was something I actually had to admit to. It’s been a year Kate. A year! But it’s still not easy.”
“I know,” was all Kate could muster for a response. She began clicking her mouse again on the other end of the phone. “Listen Jess, I’m sorry again about this morning. I wonder if I should have seen this coming.”
Yes, thought Jesse. A most definite YES.
“And I wonder what I should tell him.”
Jesse wanted to say: You tell Gene that it’s over. And you tell him that the two of you should never have gotten married in the first place. In his head, Jesse had the utmost confidence to answer any question.
“And I wonder what I should do next,” Kate continued.
He wanted to tell her: Move on. Go treat yourself to a fine meal at The Wing King’s. All by yourself. Go see Wicked again. Alone. And you lie to your best friends about being on a second date rather than spilling the entire embarrassing truth to them. But that isn’t what Jesse told Kate. “That’s tough to say,” is what he told her instead. “But we all have messes to sort through. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll just want to start forgetting. You know, instead of bottling it up.”
“You can’t forget everything Jess.” Kate didn’t mean to point her answer so directly at Jesse, but her words applied to his memories nonetheless. “And you shouldn’t.”
No? Just watch me, he thought. “Have you spoken with Tommy?” he asked, not entirely intending to change the subject, but happy that he had.
“I tried calling him already, but he didn’t answer his phone.”
“Tommy never answers his phone. Did you leave a message?”
“Tommy doesn’t check his messages. You know that. But he always checks the caller I.D. and calls right back.”
“So did he call you back?”
“No. You don’t think he’s ignoring me, do you?”
“You know how Tommy is. He’s probably just mad we didn’t ask him about that letter this morning.”
Kate stopped momentarily. “What letter?”
“You don’t remember? It was practically glued to his hand.”
“I remember he kept trying to interrupt us with something. But I had other things on my mind. And sometimes I just can’t be bothered, you know?”
“Well, I’ll meet you at the coffee shop tonight at seven. How’s that sound?”
“Christ. I think Pond just shoved four perogies into his mouth at once.”
“And I think you really need to find a new website.”
“I can’t. This city is just too damn interesting. I’ll never get enough of it.”
Until it’s had enough of you, Jesse thought. Sometimes Jesse wondered if he would have been better off having never emerged from Grand Central Station with his friends so many years ago.
“Yeah, I’ll you see you later then,” Kate finally agreed. “Thanks Jess.”
“Love you,” Jesse concluded. But the words that came out his mouth were already exhausted from being set free.