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Third Class Superhero
By Charles Yu
Paperback, 192 pages
List Price: $12.00
From the short story "Third Class Superhero"
Got the letter today and guess what: still not a superhero.
Dear Applicant, not a good sign, the number of qualified candidates this year blah blah far exceeded the number of available blah.
I scan the list of people who did make it. A lot of them graduated with me. It's the usual assortment of the strong and beautiful. About half are fireball shooters. A few are ice makers. Half a dozen telepath/empaths. A couple of brutes, a shapeshifter, a few big brains.
One thing they all have in common is that every single one of them can fly.
I can't fly. I can't do much. On the other hand, it's not like I'm asking for a lot. I don't need to be an all-star. I just want a suit and a cape, steady work, a paycheck that covers groceries. Decent health insurance. But I'll have to wait another year.
At least I have my good guy card. For now.
Every morning, when I open my eyes, I think the same four thoughts:
1) I am not a superhero.
2) I have to go to work.
3) If I didn't have to work, I could be a superhero.
4) If I were a superhero, I wouldn't have to work.
I was temping for a while to keep my afternoons free in case I got calls for tryouts, but those dried up and I needed to get a regular job for dental and vision. Now I'm a records clerk for a big midtown law firm. I like it because I don't have to talk to anyone or explain myself if I'm missing for a few hours. I just say I was lost in the stacks. People at work don't know I'm moonlighting. They think I'm an actor.
Part of the problem is my name. Moisture Man. Doesn't exactly strike fear into the hearts of the wicked.
For a few months last year, I tried to get people to call me Atmosphero. A few people did it to be nice, but it didn't stick—I think the problem was too many syllables. Shortening it to Atmos doesn't work either because there's a physicist up in Seattle named Atomos who solves science crimes with a group that calls itself The Nucleus. The registrar says if I use too similar a name I could be sued for infringement. She suggested the name 'Sphero, but that's just plain wrong. Makes me sound like a force field guy, and anyway, -o endings are usually for villains.
So I'm stuck with Moisture Man.
A couple of years ago I listed myself in the phone book, which was a mistake, because you can imagine the crank calls I get.
My power, if you can call it that, and I don't think you can, is that I am able to take about two gallons of water from the moisture in the air and shoot it in a stream or a gentle mist. Or a ball. Which is useful for water balloon fights, but not all that helpful when trying to stop Carnage and Mayhem from robbing a bank.
For years I was on a self-improvement kick. I read all the books and listened to tapes. I ordered everything there was to order by mail. Studied physics, how the big brains can change gravitational constants. I read history, I learned theory, the balance of good and evil, stuff like that. Still doesn't change the fact that I'm minor. Not even minor. A sideshow. A human water fountain.
I did some time in therapy. Turns out, I have a self-destructive impulse and slight megalomania. I didn't need to pay for sixty hours of analysis to find that out. I still go to the gym, but I'm getting old and I can only do so much. I read every word of Heroics for Dummies. $24.99. Written by someone with an MBA. The quick bullet point tip sheet at the back of the book tells me to "focus on my strengths" and "rely on others when it comes to my weaknesses." That's helpful.
Evenings, I get home, open the junk mail, drink a warm beer. My refrigerator is unplugged and will probably stay that way forever. If I get hungry, there's a 24-hour taco stand across the street. Two for a dollar and free jalapenos if you eat there. I usually get four tacos and load up on salsa.
After dinner, around ten or eleven, I go upstairs to sit with Henry. He lives in the one-room efficiency above me. He's got a futon with a thin blanket which I set up for him years ago. I don't think he's ever changed it from the couch position. He's got one sink and a hot plate and a toilet room the size of a phone booth. Henry usually watches tv while I read the trades.
Henry is eighty something but looks closer to a hundred and forty. His skin smells like naugahyde and his hair pops up from his head in clumps of cotton. Up until last year, he was inhaling two packs of reds a day, but it got too expensive. In his life Henry has poured so much booze down his throat that if he never has another drink again he will be drunk the day he dies. He's been smoked, cured, pickled and I bet he'll outlive me by twenty years.
The way we met was this: when I moved in nine years ago, I used to hear loud banging and thumping noises from upstairs about once a week. I ignored it for a while, but one night it went on longer than usual. I went up there and knocked a few times, louder and louder. No one answered. It got quiet. I put on my costume and stood outside Henry's door for a minute.
I heard a whimper. I broke the door down – I could do that kind of thing back then. Turns out it was Henry's son, Harold, making all that noise. He had been beating the crap out of his father, had been doing that every Sunday night for months, an hour or ninety minutes, until he got tired. Henry had been kicked out of the house by Harold's mother thirty-five years earlier for the drinking but instead of cleaning up his act, Henry just forgot about them and moved in to this dump with his fifteen inch television and ashtray and mini-fridge full of beer. Then Harold's mother got sick and almost died trying not to go to the doctor. Her sister paid the hospital bills and practically raised Harold and Harold turned out alright, went to college and got married and even had a son of his own, but he was still angry at Henry.
Thing is, I believe Henry when he says he never laid a hand on anyone. I believe him, if only because Henry is the laziest person I've ever met. He only wanted to destroy himself. Did his wife deserve better? Did Harold? Yes. Yes. Henry's not a good guy. He's getting the life he deserves and most days he seems okay with that. I forget that the majority of people don't want special powers, like Henry, who can just barely handle being normal. I don't like the guy but I guess I have a soft spot for him because he's the only person who I've ever actually protected. Even though I didn't really do anything. It was just the costume.
Since then, we've become friends. Sort of. I look in after him a little. Just a little. Not as much as I should. I'll regret it someday soon. It's tired but true. The only kinds of people in this metropolis are failed superheroes and the lonely old men who live upstairs from them.
Excerpted from Third Class Superhero by Charles Yu. Copyright © 2006 by Charles Yu. Excerpted by permission of Harvest Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.