CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: Greenwood – Brooklyn
Jesse took the R-Train from Times Square to the 25th Street station in Brooklyn. There were some unsavory characters loitering on the corner outside the Dunkin’ Donuts, so Jesse picked up his pace. He’d never been as confident as Tommy; Tommy could walk anywhere he wanted in any of New York’s most disagreeable neighborhoods. There was a gravestone and monument manufacturer only a half-block from the cemetery, its entranceway a sort of Halloween display of graves and tablets, marking the final resting place for nothing more than discarded cigarette butts and fast food wrappers.
Jesse had never been to a cemetery. Before Edie, he’d never lost anyone so close to him. He remembered his high-school art teacher, Mr. Freyberg, who had died suddenly while walking to work one morning. A crowd of kids had formed around his unmoving body on the sidewalk, not one of them knowing what to do. Up until a year ago, Mr. Freyberg’s was the only death that had any consequence on Jesse’s life. After Edie died, Tommy, Kate and Jesse had sneaked into the funeral home on 2nd Avenue for her funeral service. Tommy claimed he had the best egg salad sandwich in his life at that funeral service. They all agreed that going to Brooklyn for the subsequent burial seemed out of the question.
Green-Wood Cemetery was an expanse of nearly five-hundred acres, and Jesse wandered under portentous clouds for nearly an hour before heading to the office for proper directions. Trudging through Lot 106 with a visitors’ map in his trembling hands, Jesse wondered whether things might be have been easier had graveyards been organized in a similar way to comic book collections. He imagined that if the dead could be slid into coffins of polypropylene storage bags with acid free backing boards, and then filed alphabetically first and numerically second into corrugated cardboard or plastic boxes, finding the appropriate marker would be a much easier task.
But as promised, the marked pathway eventually led all the way to the grave of Edith Galloway. Jesse didn’t take his feet off the path, as though stepping off would transport him somewhere he didn’t wish to be, sending him to the same place of darkness that Edie would always know for the rest of eternity. He could still read the tombstone from where he stood however, so there was really no need to get any further away from the living than he already was. The marker lacked any description, aside from Edith’s name and the dates that indicated her time on the earth. It was one year ago to the day since she died. Of course he’d thought of her often over the past year, but Jesse found it much more difficult to actually see her name etched in the stone. Jesse scanned around him. It seemed as though he was the only person in the cemetery, the only sign of life, like he was in a dream of his own creation. But in his dreams, Edie was still alive. In Jesse’s dreams it was John who had died beneath the Hudson River on that cold, snowy night. But the callousness of reality bore on.
A drop of rain the size of Jesse’s fist exploded on the rim of the tomb. Another, as full as Jesse’s heart, punched into the earth, no doubt trickling its way through the dirt until finding the coffin. In comic books, a hero seemed to die only to be brought back to life. It was inevitable, and to the vast majority of readers, almost expected. In 1993, Superman had been beaten to death by the alien monstrosity known as Doomsday. He returned mere months later, revived by the Eradicator’s Regeneration Matrix. The X-Men’s Marvel Girl sacrificed herself in 1980 to save the universe from the Dark Phoenix, a cosmic entity of unimaginable psionic power, but her body was later discovered within a healing cocoon at the bottom of Jamaica Bay, created by the Phoenix Force itself. After the destruction of Coast City in 1994, Hal Jordan went on an insane rampage, becoming the villain Parallax and using his Green Lantern powers to kill all of the Guardians of the Universe on the planet Oa. Only two years later, Jordan had a change of heart and sacrificed his life when he re-ignited the sun. Implausibly, his soul was later selected to embody the unearthly being known as The Spectre, and Jordan became the Spirit of Redemption. And on and on it goes. It’s unfair that the real world doesn’t work as simply as comic book logic. Yes, Patrick had returned to Manhattan, but even if that had once seemed impossible, it was still a completely different situation.
Jesse raised his foot and prodded the ground with the tip of his scuffed sneaker. His frayed shoelaces tickled the blades of grass. The earth wheezed as he planted his foot firmly. The grave yielded no response. He inched closer, putting his other foot down now. A wind blew around him; it twisted through his legs and arms. Jesse wanted to feel as though it was welcoming him, but he sensed the exact opposite. The wounds inflicted by the past had not yet mended; the cuts were still waiting to scab over. Either forgiving or forgetting would be the only path to recovery. He knew it at that moment, and he knew it when he watched John Galloway from the window of Midtown Comics. He planned on waiting for John to make the next move, but Jesse had yet to hear back from him about that persisting comic collection.
Jesse crouched, and ran his fingertips along the dewy grass. A brown, crusty leaf fell from the sky, seemingly out of nowhere and it had somehow disregarded the intensifying winds. The leaf landed directly on top of the grave. Jesse had less than a moment to consider what it must have meant. There was a woman’s voice behind him.
“Hello? Can I help you?”
Still crouching, Jesse turned to see a woman standing on the path, probably no older than Jesse himself. Beside her stood John Galloway. She held John’s arm tightly.
“I’m sorry,” Jesse stammered. He stood so he wouldn’t have to look up at John. “I was just leaving.”
John seemed more focused on keeping his hat atop his head than considering the reasons for why Jesse Classen was standing in front of him at his wife’s grave. It was almost as though John was trying his best to not recognize him.
“Did you know Missus Galloway?” the woman asked. She had a rich southern accent, the kind that seemed to transport listeners to another time.
Jesse glanced back and forth between the two of them. The woman clutched John’s arm a little tighter. “Edith was a friend…of my mother’s.” Jesse didn’t care if John believed him or not; he was going to call the old man’s bluff. Still, his words garnered no reaction. “But I was just on my way. Excuse me.”
“You can stay longer if you’d like to. It’s fine with me. I’m sure it’d be fine with John too.” She looked to John for confirmation.
“Yes,” the man said quietly, slowly shaking his head in agreement. “It’s fine.”
Jesse couldn’t put it together. John seemed like a completely different person. He appeared so frail, as if the wind might blow him over at any moment. He held the woman’s arm tightly, lacking the stubborn show of independence he had exhibited in the comic store’s office the week before.
“John is Missus Galloway’s husband,” the woman said. Jesse did his best impression of a stranger, trying to pretend he didn’t know any better. “My name is Esther. I’m John’s nurse.” Waving her hand graciously, Esther let go of John and she sat down on a nearby bench.
The two men stood side by side. Jesse strained his eyes trying to look at John without having to turn his head. Without a word or any care at all for Jesse, John stared straight ahead at the grave. His gaze was simultaneously intense and nebulous, and both were making Jesse uncomfortable. Jesse knew he had to say something to his enemy. The brown leaf remained static on the grave. Another gust of wind blew towards them, and Jesse told himself he’d say something to John if the leaf did not blow away. That would decide it easily.
But it didn’t budge.
Jesse closed his eyes and counted down from ten in his head; if the leaf was still in front of him by the time he reached zero he would finally speak his mind.
…Three…Two…One…Zero. The leaf had not even shifted an inch. But Jesse still could not do it.
Defeated, Jesse sat down beside Esther, collapsing onto the cold bench. She was running something back and forth under her nose, sniffing it. It was a cinnamon stick. Forgetting all about John for a moment, he stared at her with a fresh curiosity. “What are you doing?”
“My mother loved the smell of cinnamon so much she’d rub it on her clothes.” She inhaled deeply. “Sometimes on her neck too. It’s my favorite memory. I always keep a stick of cinnamon in my purse so I can remember her anytime I want.”
Jesse responded sincerely. “That’s nice.” He wished he could carry every scent with him that he would need to remember everyone and everything he ever loved. The beach. Bubble gum. Dandelion weeds. Cigarettes. Ratty old comic books.
Opening her purse, Esther carefully placed the stick of cinnamon back inside and sealed it tight again. She inhaled deeply through her nose, bringing herself back to reality. She asked softly, “You’re the young man who was sleeping with Missus Galloway, aren’t you?”
Jesse glanced quickly over to John, hoping he didn’t hear her words. It was obvious he hadn’t. “How did you know that?” Jesse asked her quietly.
“Your smell was all over that house,” Esther said, tapping her nose.
“Does he know?” Jesse asked, directing his attention back to John. The man’s back was still turned towards the two of them, his head lowered. “He doesn’t seem to remember me.”
Esther steeled herself, as though preparing to say something she did not wish to speak of. “The poor man’s mind has been slipping lately. Sometimes he remembers the littlest details about the littlest of things. Just yesterday he recounted all nine innings of a Dodgers game he saw when he was just a boy. And then he went on about some tie his father made him wear to the World Fair. This morning it was all about stock prices on Wall Street in the Sixties.”
“Mm hmm. But then other times, he doesn’t remember a thing. Not his name, not where he’s going or where he’s been. It’s all just blank. The way he describes it, it’s something like a white emptiness.”
John Galloway scratched the back of his head. He looked around him, as though temporarily forgetting where he was. Turning to the bench, he recognized his nurse sitting with the stranger. With the back of her hand, Esther pointed towards the grave behind him, and he turned again, suddenly remembering his reason for being in the cemetery.
“His doctor said the first time it ever happened was the night Missus Galloway died. He told me about an accident in the tunnel. Said it happened while he was driving.”
Jesse’s thoughts jumped back to the brown stain of dried blood in the tunnel. He remembered the patch of blood was shaped like a checkmark, like some sort of soulless higher power had approved the accident. “I’ve tried my best to forget everything that happened that night,” he said. “I’ve been trying for a year now, but I still can’t erase the memories.”
Esther directed Jesse’s attention towards John. He was completely oblivious to the rain that was starting to come down around him. “Do you suppose you’d be happier if you were in that man’s shoes?”
Jesse didn’t have a reasonable answer for her. He had never once wished to be John Galloway. Esther opened her umbrella and walked over to the grave. She led John to the bench and handed the umbrella to Jesse. “Will you wait here with him?” she asked Jesse. “I think I should bring the car over. No sense getting him more wet than he already is.” Jesse didn’t want her to go, and his unsteady eyes couldn’t disguise it. “Relax,” she said to him. “You’ll be just fine.” Nurse Esther left, leaving the two men together with their collective misery.
Jesse didn’t know what to say. He felt guilty for having been so suspicious of John the last time they’d met, how he had him playing the villain to his hero in his mind. But now there was a space between the two men that did not exist before. Jesse considered the white spaces – the gutters – between panels in a comic book, and how they are used to represent time. But it could be just a moment they signify, a sliver in time, or it could be a million years later or even no time at all. Sometimes they will take the reader through space and time, going into the past or perhaps an alternate reality. Maybe a flashback? Maybe the same moment, but at a different angle? Sometimes those spaces are used to hold important details; sometimes nothing at all. What they represent is never predetermined; it is determined only by what happens in the next panel.
He turned his head slowly to look at John, at first from the corner of his eye, but eventually turning his head all the way towards the man on his left. John did not move however, and kept his gaze fixed upon the grave marker. Jesse wondered about the white spaces that must be dividing John Galloway’s memories, separating one random moment from another. But then John mumbled something he couldn’t quite make out. “What was that?” Jesse asked reticently.
“It was Preston Mayne’s office.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That was when I met her. Preston Mayne had a tiny office in the Empire State Building. It seemed larger than it was though because there was practically nothing in it. Edith Harrington was his secretary, but I knew from the moment I saw her she that deserved so much more than that menial office job.”
Jesse didn’t know what to say, but he expected John would continue his story. He waited for the white space to pass, for the page to turn.
“That girl who gave me my bagel dropped the tongs on the floor. She didn’t think anyone saw her, but I saw her. I didn’t say a word though, I just threw it right in the garbage.”
It was not clear just how much time the blank space had represented, if indeed either of John’s memories were real. Jesse was spooked a little by the disconnectedness of the man’s recollections. He thought he should share a random memory of his own but he wasn’t sure where to start. Eventually he said, “When we first came to New York, Tommy and Kate and Patrick were all attending universities but I never knew what it was I wanted to do. I spent so much time, so many years just trying to discover what it was I really wanted.” It was unclear if John was listening, but Jesse carried on anyway. “I was so lonely back then, so lost, but I never wanted to tell them how I really felt.”
Finally, John turned to Jesse. He did not say a word, but with his eyes he still managed to indicate that he knew exactly what Jesse must have gone through.
Jesse smiled. “Did you know that I even tried stand-up comedy once during an improv night?” John shook his head. “No, of course you wouldn’t know that. I didn’t tell anyone about that. God, it was such a massive failure. I don’t think anybody laughed at all except out of pity. It was horrible…the vulnerability of naked nerves on that stage.”
“There was a stage…” John said. His mouth seemed exceptionally dry, even with the rain blowing up from under the umbrella. “I came home late to find the note she left for me. I wanted nothing else but to be with Edith.” Jesse gulped, not because he knew what night John was talking about, but because he was afraid of how far the memory would go before the white space in John’s mind ended it. “I was on stage with this strange masked man, in the middle of his strange city. He laughed at me, and then he punched me, and then I woke up in the Holland Tunnel. I couldn’t remember where I was going to or where I was coming from. And then I saw Edith being carried into an ambulance where she died.”
Jesse felt dizzy; he felt a cold sweat pour over him. The rain came to a stop when everything else around him froze. He was trapped in his own white space, in the gutter between the panels of his own world. He felt awful. But Jesse didn’t know if he felt that way because John was remembering what happened to Edie, or if it was because John had been completely unaware of his Jesse’s role in the whole story.
But before Jesse could decide, John continued. He seemed so much more lucid than before, as though talking about his memories made them that much more real. “After the accident, I wanted to get rid of everything that ever meant anything at all to me. The next day I took my paintings to Sotheby’s. It didn’t take me long to sell the house. I smashed all of my vintage wine from the rooftop. I tore up my Hemingways.”
Jesse hesitated for a moment. He wanted to know but was afraid to ask. He was sure John did not recognize him, so what was the harm in asking? So he did. “What about your comic books?”
John faltered, but eventually had an answer. “I talked to a man about saving them for me.” There seemed to be an awareness of sorts in his old grey-blue eyes. It was apparent that John thought his visit to Midtown Comics had happened after Edie’s death and not actually three years before. His memory either jumped around or created complete inaccuracies. Obviously, the man had never sold the Gramercy home as he claimed. And still, he failed to recognize Jesse at all.
“I lost someone important too,” was what Jesse said. But it didn’t seem to faze the man at all, as John turned back to the grave where his wife was laid. After a long pause, Jesse asked, “Did you ever sell those comics?”
John shook his head, but not to say no. He shook his head to say he couldn’t remember.
“Well,” Jesse said, recollecting the words that had been shared between the two men just a week before. “I know someone who might be able to help you with that.”
Without flinching, John reached into his breast pocket and took out a familiar business card, handing it to Jesse. It was the third time Jesse Classen had been handed that same card. “Wonderful,” John said. “Why don’t you come by?”
Just as Esther brought the car to a stop, the rain halted and the clouds parted. She stepped towards the two men, surprised to see them talking to one another. “Isn’t that just the way it goes sometimes?” she spoke in wonderment. She helped John into the passenger’s seat. Jesse watched as the man wriggled under the seatbelt and clenched his jaw. Before driving off, Esther asked Jesse if he got the chance to say the things he needed to.
Jesse thought about it. “If I could go back in time and fix it all, I would.”
“Honey, that’s what everybody says after they’ve messed it all up. Just don’t blame yourself.”
The one thought that came to Jesse’s head was: Things always happen for a reason. He hated it when people used that line as a way to justify when things don’t work out the way they want them to. He hoped the nurse would be good enough to not utter such an irrational axiom. Jesse expected more from her.
But then she said, “Life has a way of going exactly the way it’s meant to.”
It was essentially the same thing, but Jesse told himself it wasn’t so bad to hear.
From the sidewalk, the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company looks no different than a hardware store or a keysmith’s shop. Jesse expected bright colors, posters and signage not unlike the displays at Midtown Comics, and he almost walked right by before spotting an advertisement for Telepathy Gel at the last second. He had known about the place for a while now, yet it seemed like one of those establishments spawned out of an urban legend, created solely for mystifying comic book nerds like himself.
The real secret behind the business was that the store was merely a front for a one-on-one after school learning center, where neighborhood kids could be helped to improve their writing skills. Inside the store, behind a shelf full of grappling hooks and secret identity kits was a hidden door which led to the learning center.
But Jesse was not there to bump up his high school level of education. He had heard that the best costumes money could buy were for sale at the Superhero Supply store, so he intended on stopping by the next time he was in Brooklyn. Jesse was not asked if he needed help, and truthfully he would not have known how to answer; he was simply too perplexed by all of the products on display. He studied the shelves full of Power Supplements (in large plastic vitamin tubs, but these were for increasing the users own powers of weather control, optic blasts and teleportation), containers of Unstable Mutation Catalysts, and spray cans for the application of invisibility, regeneration and steel skin. Jesse didn’t know what any of them actually contained, there was no indication on the packaging, but it was all for sale. Even the Bionic Implants (a display skeleton helped illustrate where/how the robotic attachments might be affixed) and the Villain Containment Unit, a human sized cage with an intricate locking mechanism.
Upon finding himself in the costume department, Jesse was finally approached by a forty-something hipster who claimed to be an employee. He certainly did not seem to possess any super abilities of his own, but Jesse answered him with caution nonetheless. “I’m looking for a costume,” Jesse spoke bluntly.
“Are you replacing an old uniform or will you be looking for an all-new identity?” The man had a badge on, but it was nothing more than a comic explosion that read POW! Whether this was a nametag or not seemed irrelevant.
“Do you already have a superhero moniker?”
“Then a new identity it is! Don’t worry. We’ll fill out all of the necessary paperwork later. What kind of costume are you thinking? Single color? Two-tone? Stripes? Nationalistic? Maybe something dark for night patrols?”
Jesse looked around, far beyond the man who was bombarding him with stupid questions. On any other day, he would have savored the eccentricity of such a place, but he was having a hard time believing that any of what was happening was for real. Still, the man continued to stare at Jesse, waiting for an answer. “Well, I don’t really want anything more than just a plain costume. Maybe with a mask.”
“Plain, huh? How about some upgrades at least? A utility belt?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Goggles? Deflector bracelets?”
“I’m not really into jewelry.”
“Cape? You’ve got to have a cape!”
“Aren’t capes sort of, dangerous?” Jesse loved superheroes, but his fear of capes went back to his childhood when he was dressed as Batman and slipped on the stairs; he tumbled all the way to the bottom and cut his head open on the corner of a wall. He spent that Halloween night in the hospital getting stitches instead of candy.
“I think I’ll just stick with the plainest costume you’ve got.”
The sales associate riffled through some suits on hangers and pulled out a white bodysuit with black gloves and boots. His eyes bulged, never imagining someone would pick such a boring outfit over all of the other options. “Sheesh. Who are you gonna be, Boring Boy?”
It was just as plain as the costume Sheldon Kohn had worn to the coffee shop the week before. “I might go with General Generic.”
The man held the costume up in front of Jesse, proclaiming it to be a perfect fit, assuring him that it would stretch everywhere it needed to. “Alrighty. All we’ve got to do now is register your superhero name and powers.” He led Jesse towards the front counter and handed him some blank forms.
“There sure seems to be a lot of paperwork involved just to buy a Halloween costume.”
“Hey man, this is more than just Halloween. This is a lifestyle choice. Besides, we can’t have two guys running around with the same name, can we?”
“No. I suppose not.” Jesse filled out the paperwork begrudgingly, settling on The Midtown Minder for his own heroic nickname. Under Superpowers he wrote: None. Under Special Abilities he wrote: None. Under Arch-Enemy he stopped to consider his answer, but eventually decided on: None. He passed the forms back to the man and waited a moment for everything to be put in order. In that moment, Jesse noticed a small, waist-height table to his right; on the table were a dozen or so cans of Time Travel Juice. A sign indicated that drinking the juice would allow the user to move forwards or backwards through the time stream, letting him alter events of his choosing. The product just happened to be on sale too. Jesse thought about everything that had gone wrong in the last few years: Edith’s death; John’s memory loss; Kate’s marriage; Natasha Kohn’s cancer; Tommy’s failed novel. What if Patrick had never left them? What if Jesse had never come to New York with his friends in the first place? What if he could fix it all? The solutions to all of his problems might have been right there in front of him; on that table, canned and waiting to be opened. He thought about the last thing Sharona said to him, before she left him sitting alone on that sidewalk in the Village: she told him to get over whatever he needed to get over. She said, “I don’t know how you’ll go about doing it, but you need to get over it.”
It seemed to Jesse that there were so many different ways to get lost, so many ways to break apart a life. And sometimes there’s no way at all to ever fix it. Jesse took one can of Time Travel Juice and placed it next to his costume on the counter. “And one of these too,” he said.
“Alrighty,” the man responded. “I’ll just need you to recite the Vow of Heroism and then I can ring these up.”
The man behind the counter reached over and pointed to a sign in front of Jesse. At the top it read: The Vow of Heroism, and there was a passage beneath it. Jesse looked around again, but he was still the only customer in the store. He cleared his throat and began to read: “I Jesse Classen, also known as The Midtown Minder, promise always to use my superpowers for good. I promise that I will use the items I’ve purchased here today safely and in the name of justice. I promise to remain ever vigilant, ever true.”
Satisfied with Jesse’s speech, the man announced the total cost of the purchase, wrapped up the costume and the can of Time Travel Juice, and handed them to Jesse. “Always honor the vow,” he said as Jesse walked back out into Brooklyn.