CHAPTER TWELVE: Midtown Comics
Let me tell you a bit more about Jesse Classen. One day into the job at Midtown Comics, he had already felt as though he belonged there. One week into the job, Jesse had begun to worry about having made another mistake; that seemed to be how his brain was wired. Five years into the job now and Jesse Classen was reconsidering every move he’d ever made up to that point in his life. Worst of all, he was now unsure about his reasons for ever having come to New York in the first place.
The only day of the week that Jesse could ever feel like he still loved his job was Wednesday, the day new comics arrived. He was looking forward to reading through the latest issue of Captain America; the day had been circled on his calendar for a couple of months now since it signaled the end of a gripping storyline which would see Steve Rogers’ last-ditch attempt to escape from the Nazi-infested ruins of Castle Zemo. It also marked the end of a landmark run of issues from the same writer/artist creative team, so something big was sure to happen. The fan boards had mostly been clamoring for the demise of Cap’s sidekick Nomad, but Jesse had suspicions that it was Sharon Carter whose ticket might be getting punched.
But certain events never happen as planned, especially when certain days are simply destined for misfortune.
As it turned out, due to a shipping error, there were no comics on that particular Wednesday. Jesse had been on the phone with his distributor for seventeen minutes, enough time for his neck to strain from holding the receiver with his shoulder. Seventeen minutes was also more than enough time that if he chose to, he could have simply walked over to the Marvel Comics studios on Fifth Avenue and read the book there instead. The phone call was going nowhere. It was one of those conversations in which neither party had any interest in being the one to finalize the squabble, but fortunately neither had to.
Stampeding into the back office, Pond hammered his meaty fist on the door frame as though his unwieldy entrance had any chance in the world of going unnoticed. “Yo, Jess! There’s somebody here to see you.” Pond’s headphones clasped his neck like a wall-mounted spring grip holding a mop. His music was only slightly louder than his shouting.
Waving Pond away, Jesse ended his phone conversation without either a solution or a compromise. He already knew how quickly he would tire today of telling every customer, “Sorry, but the books won’t be in until tomorrow.” It was hard not to sound irritated when giving the same disappointing answer to the same exact question to every person who would come in, like repeating oneself to incessant children who were all suffering severe short-term memory loss. What Jesse really needed to do, he thought, was to craft a sign displaying the same information, one that he could simply point to rather than having to open his mouth at all.
But all the signs in the world would not have helped Jesse when he approached the gentleman who had been asking for him. It was John Galloway. He was flipping through a third edition trade paperback of The Man Without Fear. And he was still dressed impeccably, far too erudite for the Midtown Comics rabble. It had been four years since the man had been there. Four years since he’d personally handed Jesse the key to his own ruination in the form of a crisp business card.
Jesse moved cautiously like a Stanley Kubrick ape at the Dawn of Man; John Galloway seemed no less perplexing than the legendary black monolith. Through the glass display case, behind the Ultron-13 maquette, Jesse watched the man’s old hands as they held the book; his craggily, contorted fingers turned the pages slowly, gradually, not at all like the voracious hands of the shop’s regular mass of loiterers.
“Are you the manager?” John asked before Jesse could fully ready himself. He extended his right hand, looking for the same in return.
“I’m the assistant manager,” Jesse answered straight away. “Still just the assistant manager.”
“Still?” John withdrew his hand, returning it to again brace the spine of the book he held.
Jesse nodded his head guardedly. “Listen,” he spoke quietly enough not to cause any commotion. “I don’t want any trouble.”
John’s brow furrowed. He looked to his left and he glanced behind himself as though the young man might have been speaking to someone else. “I’m sorry?”
“Would you like to speak in the back office? I’d prefer to not make a scene.”
John chuckled, “You don’t even know what I’m here for, my boy.” He was about to return the book back to the shelf from where he’d taken it, but he couldn’t help noticing the number of identical copies on display. “Tell me, how many of these reprinted editions are produced?”
“That one is the third edition.”
“Wouldn’t all of these lower the value of the originals?”
“Not really. Trade paperbacks are only produced so often because the originals are hard to come by for the casual reader.”
“But if I can read this book, why would I need to spend more for the same thing?”
“It’s called collecting,” Jesse couldn’t help himself from being short with the man. “Sometimes you can’t put a price on collecting what you love. Just ask any pannapictagraphist.”
“Excuse me? I don’t think I’m familiar with that term.”
“Comic book collectors are also called pannapictagraphists.”
“I see.” John placed the book back. He removed his hat and said, “If you don’t mind, I think I would prefer to speak in the back.”
Earlier that morning, Jesse had accompanied Patrick to Brooklyn. His footsteps felt lighter, his stance not quite as sunken as I’d known. He was ecstatic to see his friend again after so long, especially after a week of worrying whether he was alive or not. He had been too afraid to call home for the answer. Jesse, Patrick and Sheldon took a tour of the modest two-bedroom apartment on India Street that was being sold for a not-so-modest price. Still, it was supposed to be an up-and-coming neighborhood and there was also a school nearby. Jesse’s wish was for Patrick to return to Morningside Heights so all of them could be closer. But Patrick was ready to make an offer on the apartment just when Jesse had to leave for work. He took the train back to Manhattan before disembarking from the 7-Train at the 42nd Street Station.
As Jesse ascended the steps towards street level, his hands once again found John Galloway’s business card buried deep within his pocket. Instantly, he considered Sharona’s words from the week before, and how he’d later found himself lying in the mud of Morningside Park and promising to find a way to forgive John. It was the only way he was going to move on. In fact, Patrick Kohn’s reappearance that very morning served as a wakeup call that the past was only a fleeting, incorporeal concept at times, and that anything was possible. So he called Midtown Comics, and told Pond he would be coming in late.
Like déjà vu, Jesse found his way back to the Galloway home in Gramercy, only this time it was with the full intention of confronting John, rather than hoping to avoid the man while fooling around with his wife. With his old familiar heavy feet, Jesse climbed the front steps before finally planting himself upon the doormat. The Galloways, it still read, like a cruel joke. He tried to peer in through the window. The curtains were shut tight, probably as they had been since the first day John returned home alone, but Jesse could not see anything worth noting. Like a wolf at the door, Jesse was hungry. He found the courage to ring the doorbell. RING DING DONG. The chime from inside was a sound he did not recognize, and Jesse realized then that he might not ever have heard the doorbell before. The Galloway home was not a popular destination for casual guests, socialite parties or even trick-or-treaters. Perhaps their mail had been sent directly to John’s office as well, for no postman had ever found his way up those steps either.
Jesse waited for another two minutes, but there was no answer. The stone steps cringed once more under his weight. He felt the fear well up inside his throat but he choked it back like a snake swallowing a rat. Jesse Classen knew himself well enough to know that it would be some time before he would find himself back at that door, before he would find the strength to attempt forgiveness. I know that it was within that moment that Jesse also understood Tommy’s feelings towards Patrick, and of his refusal to move on. Maybe the past is not so fleeting at times; the damage the past can inflict might not be so momentary. Perhaps, Jesse considered, forgiveness is something meant only for the future.
The back office at Midtown Comics was not so much an office as an extra room to store the piles of merchandise the staff hadn’t dealt with yet. The rest of it was something of a comic book museum with full-size replicas of Iron Man’s invincible armor, Cap’s mighty shield, Batman’s utility belt and cowl and the hammer of Thor all proudly on display in glass cases occupying the four corners. The stacks of comics and dog-eared trade paperbacks were there for quality control, as Jesse liked to put it. Beneath the mass of toys, posters, statues, boxed collectibles and a chugging computer sat one desk with two chairs, either of which could probably be considered medieval torture devices for their significant lack of lumbar support. Jesse rarely sat in them though, choosing the ratty couch as his preferred spot for doing business. The corduroy sofa was long enough for three people, though one spot was reserved for the life-sized stuffed Spider-Man doll.
Jesse seated himself at the desk in a lackluster effort to pretend he held some sort of power. John produced a business card from his breast pocket and laid it in front of him. He immediately sat on the dusty couch, not intimidated at all by the wall-crawler next to him.
Flipping the business card from front to back to front again, Jesse inspected it for some kind of clue. “What’s this for?”
“It’s a business card,” John mocked. “It’s for doing business.”
“What kind of business are you suggesting here John?”
“I’ve got a rather sizeable collection of comic books that I’m looking to sell.”
So many questions surged through Jesse’s head, but he kept his mouth shut, and allowed the man to continue.
“My father bought most of them for me when I was little. Too little to understand the value of keeping them in decent shape, mind you. But I’m certain they must still be worth something to a collector.”
It would have been safe to say that Jesse had no idea what was transpiring at that moment. Was John Galloway’s folksy manner his way of attempting to bury the proverbial hatchet, or had he forgotten all about that exact same conversation four years removed? The business card was the same as the one from before, the one Jesse had found in his pocket only one week prior. It was still two inches by three-and-a-half in size. It still had the same phone number. It still smelled of Lucky Strike cigarettes and also of that extraordinary home in Gramercy Park.
John continued. “I realize that technically speaking it may not be a collection, since it’s mostly just a random assortment of books in varying condition. But you’re free to come and have a look at them.”
One week ago Jesse Classen had been lying in the mud of Morningside Park when he rediscovered John Galloway’s business card. It was the same night he had decided he would find forgiveness from the man whose life he destroyed. That wasn’t even an exaggeration, Jesse remembered thinking. He had swooped into John’s life and tarnished everything the man loved. But when he had finally gathered the courage it took to approach the Galloway home that morning, John did not answer. Jesse felt he had reason to be suspicious.
The man’s old gray eyes scanned a few of the items on the desk. The sculptures that sat collecting dust. These were not the same as the heroic paraphernalia which occupied the corners of the room within glass cases; these were objects of enormous power, tools of villainous desire from the scattered dimensions of comic book netherworlds. The Cosmic Cube. The Infinity Gauntlet. The Serpent Crown. The Satan Claw. The Evil Eye of Avalon. John Galloway must have been drawn to them instantly. “You can come by any time,” the man offered.
Jesse knew that the first sign of a good super villain is no sign at all. A truly prolific arch-villain is one who will bide his time, one who carefully plans his next move. His greatest move ever. The diabolical plot that will finally rid the world of the hero he’s come to loathe above all else. For that is his only purpose, the only reason for having to share the same dirt of the world. Jesse knew all of this of course, so there was no possible way that he could have the wool pulled over his eyes.
“I think I know someone who might be able to help you,” Jesse finally answered, rising from his seat. “I’ll be sure to pass your information along.”
“Wonderful,” John spoke smoothly. He too rose from his seat, and Spider-Man’s head flopped backwards as the weight was released from the couch.
The two men still did not manage a proper handshake, and John continued out of the office without one. He turned to Jesse before parting and said, “I’m sorry, but I just realized you haven’t yet introduced yourself.”
The only answer Jesse had for him was: “I know.”
John Galloway exited Midtown Comics for the second time in four years. Jesse watched him from the window, wondering what to do next. The tip of the Chrysler Building seemed to be swaying more than it should have been. Jesse did not think it should have been swaying at all, but perhaps he’d simply never noticed before.