My mother and I were driving downtown so that I could re-enroll in Junior High after an arrest and suspension. It was a humid Memphis spring, and two men leaned against the sidewall of a liquor store sharing a bottle wrapped in brown paper. Painted on the wall behind them, the words SUPERMAN DAM FOOL covered the length of brickwork, each letter composed uncertainly as if by a different hand. Drawn next to the words was a stick figure—a smiling circle sitting atop a legless, armless bar, but it wore no cape. DC Comics had just killed Superman. Every comic seller in the city sold his demise. Rows of bloodied Ss filled the racks.
I have no idea how long the graffiti had been up, or if it was in response to the death of Superman, but at the time I wondered. In fact, I wonder still. For what reason was Superman foolish?
In third grade, I told Ashley Pettigrew that I knew how to cuss without getting in trouble. “Dam it,” I said. My feet barely scraped the dirt as I hung from the monkey bars. “That is spelled d-a-m-n,” Ashley told me. “Dam is spelled d-a-m. So you’re not really cussing.”
The thing about aging is that I now welcome tallying my failures, humiliations and shame. It elicits the same pleasure as cleaning house after a busy month, or painting a room instead of bleaching out scuffmarks. But it’s the ambiguity within morality, the difference between guilt and innocence that eludes me. I have a working knowledge of foolishness.
The Superman issues leading up to his death ended with a bleak panel of a creature sheathed in what looked like a hazmat suit banging chained paws against a steel container buried deep in the earth: DOOMSDAY IS COMING! Once freed, popping up somewhere in the Middle West, Doomsday extended his hand for a yellow canary to land. He crushed the bird. The caption, "BLORCH," hovered next to his fist in blood-red letters—"HAH ... HA HA HAAA."
Did the graffitist believe Superman was a fool because he used his powers to fight evil instead of, say, vacationing in the Bahamas? It is true that Superman would never have had to wait in transportation lines, and if he wanted he could have easily won Mr. Universe pageants, or literally picked up any woman, or man, he desired. What’s the use of morality when you are a superior being?
In kindergarten, I sold my soul to the devil after I’d been punished, sent out into the hall, for using my hand to make fart sounds under my arm during naptime. Right when giggles subsided I’d let another one rip only to bring on a fresh bout of laughter. I’d never been so popular. According to my older brother, Chris, the devil granted wishes. I can’t remember what I wished for, but a desire to be beyond punishment lingers in my memory.
Chris knew all about the devil because at ten years old he was a Satanist. He’d been converted, he said, when he found the Satanic Bible glowing on a corner shelf in his elementary school library. I was plump with wishes. But when I told Chris that I’d asked the devil to kidnap our little sister after she’d left my Big Wheel out front and it was stolen, he said, “Take it back. Satan’s evil.”
On the day of my arrest and suspension from Junior High, I’d just come back from a six-week long sick leave—pneumonia, mono, glandular infection—when the vice-principal found a razor blade in my wallet. The real principal had just been arrested for embezzlement, and the vice-principal had been temporarily promoted. Finals neared and to make up for the time I lost while sick, I’d obtained a hall pass to study in the library instead of attending English. Along the way I ran into a kid I knew because he sold off his Ritalin prescription during lunchtime, and after that the two of us ran into the interim-principal. My friend didn’t have a hall pass, and our persons were searched for drugs or weapons. The interim-principal told us he was cracking down on school violence. Two different students had been stabbed with pencils that year alone. During his tenure, each morning, the homeroom bell was withheld for ten minutes while long yellow buses unloaded teenagers who lived full-time at the county juvenile penitentiary. At day’s end, the buses idled, waiting for the non-incarcerated students to leave campus.
Superman fought Doomsday all across the plains. But furious with primal rage, uttering pre-verbal caws, grunts and growls, the subterranean creature matched Superman’s prowess. “He wants destruction and death,” Superman told Lois Lane while barreling the creature through a brick wall with his powerful heat vision. “I have to be every bit as ferocious and unrelenting as he is.”
To which Lois, dressed in a skirt, high heels, and business blazer with especially geometric shoulder pads, cried, “But…you can’t.”
Not only could Superman fly, but he also had x-ray vision, superhuman strength, superhuman speed, and he never aged nor suffered any lasting wounds. The Man of Steel. But Clark Kent, the reporter persona that Superman used to closet his true identity, was just a normal guy. Not only normal, but socially inept, clumsy, and in many ways invisible, especially to Lois Lane.
I spent the first year of my life with steel between my legs. A rod held my feet apart and bound my ankles. “Realignment,” the doctor told my mother. My leg joints and hip sockets were incompatible. Later I wore braces with hard plastic-covered springs that held together leather straps and connected to brown corrective shoes.
During recess, when the other boys played soccer, I wandered the outer-corridors of the school, the springs of my braces creaking in the coolest, smaller alcoves. Children were forbidden to leave the playground, and my kindergarten teacher repeatedly had to search me out. One day she handed me a rusted coffee can full of water and a brush. “Here,” she said. “Color the bricks.” With a few strokes of water, the rust colored bricks shined crimson and new. I looked up, paintbrush dripping droplets in the dust, just as two boys whose names I’ve forgotten but whose white sneakers I still recall ran all the way from girls who jumped rope by the front door to the swing set at the far end of the lot.
By the time I graduated kindergarten, I had become a master brick painter. Smiley faces were the hardest because I needed to move quickly in order to paint all the parts before the first wet brick dried. But my favorite thing to paint were arrows that dead-ended into bushes or walls as if I had access to secret corridors the other children would never know. Sometimes I hid across from the water-painted arrows and waited, hoping someone would see that I’d vanished.
A month before he was killed, Superman was set to marry Lois Lane. Superman had lived outside the bounds of time. Each conquest, each adventure had no past, nor future. If Superman were to marry Lois then this would force him into the realm of mortality, the temporal flux of events ultimately normalizing Superman, and killing Clark Kent.
Inside the Velcro pouch of my wallet, the interim-principal found a rusted roofing blade. Unlike a normal razor blade, this one hooked inward at the top and bottom. My wallet was red with a rainbow and unicorn. I’d found the blade in the woods when my family went camping two summers before and pocketed it so I could make a weapon for my favorite GI Joe, Shipwreck. But Shipwreck had long since been stored in the attic. The cop who escorted me off campus in handcuffs believed my story. “Used to make weapons for my toys,” he said. “Even had an stick with a razor blade taped to it, like yours, that my He-Man carried around.”
While smashing up a Lex-Mart, Doomsday was distracted by a commercial that advertised pro wrestling at the Metropolis Arena. A wrestler yelled, “WHERE ARE YOU GONNA GO?” and as if awakened to some greater purpose Doomsday repeated, "'MHH-TRR-PLSS?'" In the city, Doomsday raged against skyscrapers, shopping plazas, media stations, and Superman. If Kent is Superman’s alter ego, then Doomsday is the Id that Superman must restrain, re-bury deep below the surface. During a fight that takes place early in the issue, Superman literally attempts to muscle the creature back into the earth: "'I DON'T KNOW WHAT HOLE YOU CRAWLED OUT OF—BUT I'M SENDING YOU BACK!" And in the end, Superman and Doomsday miraculously serve simultaneous blows that leave them both dead in the rubble, as if one could never have survived without the other.
Perhaps I’m misreading the graffiti and “Dam” literally refers to damming a river, or some other procession. If I drove to the liquor store late one night and painted a comma between Superman and Dam and added an S to Fool, it would then read: “Superman, Dam Fools!”—a command, or a plea.
Once, while having a conversation with a friend about literature, I was told the reason I didn’t like Virginia Woolf was because I did not try hard enough, to which I replied, “Perhaps you try too hard.” And when I actually read Woolf for the first time, years later, it was her diaries I loved most.
“I enjoy epicurean ways of society; sipping and then shutting my eyes to taste. I enjoy almost everything,” Woolf wrote on February 27th 1926. “Yet I have some restless searcher in me. Why is there not a discovery in life? Something one can lay hands on and say, ‘This is it?’”
Sometime after selling my soul, my brother and I found a hurt puppy in the road. Because we fought over whose room the puppy would sleep in, my mother set up a box in the hallway. In the night, after everyone went to sleep, I snuck out and cuddled the sleeping dog. It was sometime later that a ghost, a man in a suit and tie, appeared at the end of the hall and walked toward me. Because I’d rescinded my deal with the devil I anticipated this arrival, and oddly, I felt relieved.
When my braces were finally removed, the summer between my first and second year of elementary school, I was given a pair corrective shoes that looked deceptively like basketball sneakers. Climbing from the car, back at the house, my mother told me to take a run. I’d never been able to run. “I’m going around the block,” I said. It was strange, running, not like flying at all. My left leg was stiff in the hip socket, and the sneakers felt bulky on my feet. At the corner of my street, I tripped on the toe of my new shoes and scraped my knee on the sidewalk. “Pussy!” the neighborhood bully, Zachariah, yelled from his porch. I stood, ran faster than I had before and once I was safely distanced from Zach I yelled, “Asshole!”
Superman didn’t really die. He came back a year later, in an issue called, “The Reign of Superman.” But he’d changed. Superman was more suspicious than before, protected.
Doomsday was also revived, and his origin revealed. 250,000 years ago, one of Superman’s countrymen had forced subjects into extremely hostile environments and then cloned the tissue of those that survived. Eventually, Doomsday grew superior and killed everything on the planet, including Superman’s ancestor.
While searching my friend’s bag, the interim-principal stuck his finger on a safety pin holding down a Nirvana patch. It bled a little, and he yelled for the nurse—“God knows! Now I’ve got to get checked for AIDS.”
“I don’t have AIDS,” the kid said. “Why would I have AIDS?” he asked, and began to cry.
Sometimes I imagine that the graffitist’s Superman does not refer to the comic hero, but to a friend of the artist. Perhaps Superman-the-friend had died in some shameful way and the graffiti is an epitaph of sorts. Or maybe Superman-the-friend liked to get drunk on fortified wine and act a damn fool. Maybe he liked to run down busy streets, naked, and singing, “IwantmybabybackbabybackbabybackbabybackIwantmybabybackbabybackbabybackbaby—”
The year after I was arrested, in the eighth grade, I lied to the interim-principal and told him that another boy had pulled a gun on me. I wanted to transfer out. The gun was real, but it had only been threatened—“When you ain’t looking,” the boy who jumped me in the bathroom had said. I was laid out in the urinal with a bloodied nose. “Pop.” He held two fingers together and pressed them against my forehead. I knew him from the year before. When he skipped me in the lunch line, I choked him. Back in the seventh grade, my friends and I had learned that people beat you up less when you acted crazy.
One friend chose to bang his head against the wooden desk until it bled. This worked for a while, but when I was out of school, sick with every flu known to the teenage immune system, a group of boys cornered him in the stairwell and ripped out every facial piercing he had: three eyebrow rings, two nostril rings, and three lip rings. They even managed to tear his earlobe ripping out a plug. He was the first to dropout of school. Now, he’s a model. When I asked him why the others jumped him, he scoffed. “I forgot,” he said. “Does it matter?”
I recently ran across a thought experiment where the author wished to trace cognitive imagery the mind creates when something is remembered. He wanted to draw the image he held in his mind. The thought experiment went like this:
I am sitting with a pen in my hand and a blank sheet of paper in front of me. I imagine Superman flying through the air. I can even, it seems, locate my image in the center of the blank sheet of paper. It occurs to me to try to (as it were) trace the image. That is, I try to trace a picture of Superman by going around the edges of the projected image with the pen. But the project is a dismal failure. The puzzle then is how such a failure is possible.
“The truth is,” Woolf wrote in 1926, “one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes; but look at the ceiling, at Grizzle, at the cheaper beasts in the Zoo which are exposed to walkers in Regent’s Park, and the soul slips in.”
Later in the post-resurrection series, Superman relishes beating up villains instead of trying to avoid it. When he is forced to kill a cyborg-imposter of himself, he does so by ramming his fist into his robotic doppelganger’s stomach, lifting him in the air, and through a simple spasm of arm muscle he shatters his likeness into a million little pieces.
After watching Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid, I became an expert black belt. Unlike Macchio, I didn’t need a Mr. Miyagi or lessons because my fleece karate outfit came with the belt already attached. Chris had one too, but he chose to sleep in his rather than wear it to school. I preferred real-life heroism to super powers.
A low brick wall ran in serpentine fashion along the front of our elementary school. Once, at the end of the day, I found Chris caught up in a fight. A boy, bigger than him, threw pinecones at Chris’ face as he lay on the ground, hiding his head with his arms. Neither my brother nor the bully saw me as I stood up on the brick wall. And neither boy saw when I jumped, kicking the bully in the back with both feet. I didn’t anticipate the pain that came when I landed on my hip, and I tried hard not to whimper. The bully lay in front of me, screaming, running his fingers all along his spine as if he meant to fling away fire ants. Chris raised his head from the ground and saw the bully, and then he saw me. “You’re such an asshole,” he said.
At home, after mom put peroxide on the cut above Chris’ eye, I took off my karate outfit and stuffed it in the back of the closet. The image of the bully’s distorted face projected in my mind’s eye, as vivid as a dream even though my eyes were open, even though I was awake.
After the invented gun, I was transferred to a different Junior High, one that was difficult to get into because it was in an affluent part of town. There were no metal detectors like at my previous school, and students ate lunch outside. I was unprepared academically, and so was put in remedial classes that took place in trailers at a far edge of the track and field. But I never went. I was there on scholarship, and told frequently by teachers that my tenure was a trial. Chris, who had stopped being a Satanist at thirteen when he became a Baptist, was a senior in high school and had dropped Christianity for marijuana. He picked me up every morning after my mother dropped me off at school. We often smoked weed from a bong in his friend’s basement.
Sometimes we’d pick up my friend who had dropped out the year before. Hardly any scars were visible from the fight, except for one earlobe that buckled under where the flesh refused. My friend was a long way off from becoming a model, and instead, at fifteen, he worked construction with his father.
I wanted to learn. When the transfer went through, I anticipated changing my study habits, maybe working as a reporter for the school newspaper. But I’d learned different life skills at the previous middle school. I’d learned to strike first before an actual gun was pulled or before I too was cornered in the stairwell. I resented my new peers because they did not know anything about where I’d been, because they could not.
The last day I attended public school, I got into a fight with a kid who’d been checking me all semester. Dogwoods bloomed just outside the stairwell window where we fought. He called me an “Opey Taylor Donald Duck cluck-cluck looking like a raggedy old junked up Vanilla Ice turkey neck donkey tooth mother fucker.” I threw the first punch. But he landed at least five fists to my temple before pushing me down a flight of stairs. I managed to make it outside, to the grass, before I passed out.
“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time,” begins the famous Woolf quote. “It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”
Eventually Superman killed Doomsday. Using The Wayfarer’s time traveling bracelet, Superman teleported the monster to the very end of time, as the galaxy was collapsing in on itself, and he tossed the creature into the deadly crush. With Doomsday buried in the universe’s collapse, Superman returned to the pages without time, back to where events occurred without cycle or chronology. His death nearly forgotten but for the hesitant mistrust that became a part of The Man of Steel’s character from then on. But I imagine it was safe in those pages and that Superman was protected from any regret, or blame and I suppose Superman would be foolish not to choose this form of timelessness.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Randal O’Wain is a fiction writer and essayist from Memphis, Tennessee whose work appears, or is forthcoming, in Guernica Magazine, The Oxford American, Booth Journal, Crazyhorse, Redivider, and Hobart: another literary journal, among others. He now lives in Iowa City where he is an MFA candidate in Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER:
Memphis based, Fontaine Pearson focuses on street and landscape photography with some architectural and portraiture work. Her camera is a meditative tool informed by her incubation in comparative religion studies, mental illness and empathy for life on the margins of society. She can be contacted by email at email@example.com, on LinkedIn and Facebook.