“Mate, will you just settle on a station,” Rob said, frustrated by Mark pressing buttons again.
He’d been in work thirty-seven minutes. It should have been fifty-four, but alarm clocks and such binary measures of life had become insignificant since Anna left. He’d spent the whole time trying to find a song that didn’t remind him of her. He had had high hopes for the music, wishing each pulse would jolt away the pain, but it was just making him feel worse. That was the trouble with a life lived alongside someone else. Every significant moment, and thus the soundtrack to them all, was bound up with them. The song that was playing when they met, the song they used to sing around the house, that tune they heard every bloody night in Spain. She was the only person who also knew all the words to Spandau’s Ballet’s Gold, and he loved the way she used to come in from a sweaty gig and switch the radio to Classic FM to fall asleep to. Now he might never be able to listen to music again.
“Fuck it. I’ll put on a CD.” He pressed play, hearing the familiar tone disc whirling in its spin of anticipation. Rob took a heavy breath, about to comment again.
Alex interjected. “Leave him alone.”
Any other day Mark would have been shocked at this apparent gesture of warmth from the office wanker, but today his mind was so full of drizzle that it barely registered.
Alex immediately affirmed he had not had a personality transplant.
“It’s the only way he’ll get his knob twiddled.” Alex spluttered little specks of tea on his desk with a self satisfying guffaw, a proud sneezing elephant.
Alex interpreted Rob’s glare as a need for clarity on his hilarious joke.
“I mean now that Anna’s not there, twiddling his.”
Piles of paper flurried across the room. A coffee cup shattered on the wall, not far from Alex’s ear. It was a good shot, and did a great job at deflecting the fact that the office chair had been flung across the floor and Mark was now pacing towards Alex. Grabbing his collar he shoved him against a filing cabinet, tripping on the strap of a satchel in the process. His pulse quickened, less like a rhythmic reflection of his blood pumping than a ricocheting shuttlecock coursing through his veins.
Rob just sighed. “Go home. Go on.”
Mark didn’t want to go home. There were still two coffee mugs on the table and Anna’s books on the floor. The bed sheets smelt of her hair. He had tried being at home. Giving it time. Reflecting they called it. The empty flat, a humming fridge, a cool indoor chill, the inspiring drone of a snowy television and the taste of luke warm tea on his tongue wasn’t helping.
Anna had got “bored.” That’s what she said. “Bored.” They had been living together for so long, and now she just wanted to live separately. She wanted a beginning again. A heady, breathy new start. The excitement of a moment in which the potential lives. The circumstances that mean anything is possible. Mark had never been one for frivolities and flirtations, but he loved her. He was thoughtful. Attentive.
He knew to make her morning tea when he heard the shower click off, so when she came out of the bathroom it would be the perfect temperature. When she sat on the sofa and hunched her legs up, he knew to sit on her feet to keep them warm. He always put her bookmark in when she fell asleep with limbs flailed and the pages flapping in her hand.
The first time he saw Anna she was sat at the bar with her fingers wrapped around a glass of wine. Occasionally she toyed with the dark curl of hair at the nape of her neck whilst sipping the rich red; she was presumably aware the action entranced him. She danced him into loving her. Her hips shimmied with delicate sexuality and her eyes flickered through her swinging hair, sending electricity like jelly fish clamping around his heart. Waving her arms sporadically she lost herself in the music - and Mark lost himself in her.
Now she was gone. He felt his heart had been wrenched from his chest and trampled on in front of him, before being rammed back down his throat so he was forced to taste the loneliness and rejection.
“I’m going to the pub.” He picked up his parka and stormed out.
Bars in the day, especially a week day, always seemed a bit curious to Mark. There was a certain type of person who spent all day in a place that oozed the musty scent of stale cigarette smoke and squashed dreams. Dull lights and faded hopes made the room always feel somewhat jaded. This suited him just fine. All he wanted to do was stare into his pint and drink the hurt away.
The afternoon passed in a blur, and as he drank more he found himself speaking to anyone, splurging the thoughts he would rather remain hidden. Something was necessary to remove the edge of his pain and strangers and alcohol may as well be it. He looked outside, where the soft embers of the day were fading into evening. He used to like this time of day, a time of transition and change. Now he did not want anything to change.
He wanted Anna back.
His legs took him back to the bar in which he first met her. He wanted to be there, to feel as though he was near her again. The fizzing neon sign looked cheap, and the lights flickered rather than throbbed down on the empty dance floor. A group of girls all dressed in black stood chatting. Mark winked at the blonde one. She looked away.
“Double whisky and a shot of tequila please,” said Alex to the barman, slapping his note on the sticky surface. This was an order repeated again and again.
Suddenly – or so it seemed to Mark - the lights came on, triggering flashbacks of being at a school disco. He couldn’t remember the last time he had stayed at a club until closing. He wasn’t sure he would remember this. Stumbling down the stairs to the door he was hit with a waft of cold air. Pin pricks of hurt stung his eyes as the tingles of his throat slowly morphed into sobs and large, round, wet tears rolled down his cheeks.
The sun’s fiery haze started to illuminate morning streets. Coffee shop windows glowed with a dull orange light. Empty boxes piled high with slightly sodden corners from the morning dampness stayed resolutely forlorn. The ever present police sirens called in the distance, their smooth melody over the pumping bass lines emanating from the dark windows of cars etching down the road. Everything seemed so sad. Isolated. He walked alone.
Mark’s bladder was swelling; the pints and shots were filling up inside him. He teetered like a penguin as he ran down the stairs of the public toilets.
He rested his spinning head against the cool stone. Brief thoughts of germs flashed in his mind, but he was too far gone to care about such trivial matters like hygiene. The toilets reeked of stale piss and fractured hopes, and the weird lighting was making him feel dizzy.
Scrawled on the walls were tales of love, loss and lust. Maybe he should call Claire – apparently she gives it good. Or ask Jake and Laura what the secret is. They are going to be in love 4 eva. Apparently. Fools. He used to think that of himself and Anna – not when things had just started, because no one really falls in love straight away - but after time, when his joys become hers, and her woes his pains. Maybe that was it. They were no longer two separate people. They had dissipated into one another, ebbing and flowing into one another until no clear lines existed. He had though that was falling in love; perhaps it was fracturing her soul.
Damn Anna. He would let her get on with it then. Drink until his mind was a fuzz, seek solace in lines of powder, and sit crying down here in a fucking public toilet whilst she lay in bed with the dark rich arsehole she had been shagging. Sliding down the door, feet up against the trunk of the toilet, Mark started to moan out the tormented waves of anger shivering within him.
He had a sudden surge of feeling, that it was his fault, and that sense of culpability triggered a need for action. He hadn’t got as far as deciding what that action should be, but jumped up and bounced from foot to foot, before swinging open the cubicle door.
The steely mirror in front of him showed dilated pupils, a face raw from the wind, and magnified creases. It was all evidence of a worn out man. He needed to see Anna. He needed to get her back.
He ran up the stairs to find air, Anna, and his soul.
The door was locked. “Fuck, don’t they check these things?” he shouted.
Life was now ruined. He was going to rot down here whilst she wrapped herself around some other guy, the first steps of that dissolution into one another. The rhythm of Mark’s soul started to feel taut and his head swam with distortion. His chest hurt, the embedded dagger of rejection still hanging from his ribcage, and he felt an endlessly abrasive ache. He needed to do something. He needed to get out. Swinging his left arm back and against the metal door did nothing but bruise his arm. He kicked, yelling in angst. The door stood firm. Finally, in desperation and anxiety, he head butted the door.
Blood spattered as he stumbled to the floor. “Screw you Anna,” he mumbled as he hit the ground.
The hand dryer started, chugging out its warm air.
It was a cleaner who found him. He had been working all night at a fried chicken shop before heading here to make extra cash for the family. Cleaning up piss and shit was enough. Cleaning up blood and bodies something else. Rifling through Mark’s pockets he pulled out £34.67, a hip flask a quarter full of whisky and a pack of chewing gum. There would be questions, so he might as well get something from it.
A few days later the summary of the coroner’s report was printed. Death by heartbreak, it read.
“Hectic, isn’t it?”
When she said that I was in a daze, tired by the journey, the customs clearance, the formalities.
I looked around, taking in the strange buildings, hearing for the first time the multi-lingual roaring of the crowds competing for attention with cars driven by angry drivers hooting and honking their way along a grid which right then seemed so alien.
“I’m alright. Listen, are you sure you know where you’re going?”
Her green eyes sparkled with the sheer joy of just being there, and she laughed and said, “Hey! I’m the one who was here before, remember?”
I hated her leaving, hated watching her take her bus, slinging her baggage so carelessly around the place as if she had lived here all her life.
The last thing she said was, “You take care now, you hear!”
At least, I thought, we would meet again soon, and right now I was in a new place, going to start a new job, meet new people and maybe it wasn’t so bad after all.
“Mr. Reilly? Go on through, they’re expecting you.”
Not a hint of reproach for being five minutes late, in spite of my best efforts, leaving the hotel a full hour before I thought necessary. Familiarity would surely sort problems with connections. Surely.
There wasn’t a sign of a put-down anywhere, no, just that warm friendliness they all seem to project. Inside, in the inner offices, it was just the same. The whole design team were there, and to listen to them, you’d think they were overjoyed by my arrival, as if the graphics mattered that much in a TV advertising studio. Who knew? Maybe it did after all, but I’d never felt it quite the same way before.
Oh, that wonderful first day there, everyone, graphics (me!), script, camera, lighting, sound, models, just about everyone it seems, sitting around discussing what they wanted. Even, God help us, what they felt! Can you imagine that? Grown-ups, educated, talented people, telling each other how they felt the promotion of another aerosol product should be approached.
Lord, I thought to myself, this is the place to be.
That girl with the lovely green-dyed hair, the production assistant, smiling to give me encouragement when I was asked what I thought by the boss himself, “Reilly, I know your just in the door, but what do you think?!”
Then the facilities! The set up they gave me to work with, I had only ever dreamed of something like this before.
Outside the bus, the red brick buildings with small shops at their base crawled by. The shops overflowed onto the street, big crates of wares piled high nestled under the gaily striped awnings and the pavement's edge was marked with sporadic piles of cardboard cartons, rotting fruit and great mounds of black plastic bagged refuse. Enormous crowds of people surged this way and that, small outreaches, like little avalanches, peeled away from the main flow and crossed at intersections and all colours, races tongues seemed sure of representation out there.
“Oh my God! This is really it!”
“I beg your pardon young man.?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I was just thinking out loud,” and I thought to myself that all the snooty sniffing in the world wouldn’t change that. You can’t unthink a thought once thought, or at least I thought so then and still think so now.
Thoughts disturbed, I tried to remember which way she had said. Not for the first time I was left wondering why we couldn’t stay together from the outset. We’ve been together since…when? Since we first met on that beach back home and we can’t stay together, yet, because I need to be near work, at least for a while and because she says she has stuff to sort out here and while we’re at it where is it she is?
In here I have, let me see, pocket book, keys, letter (write me a letter now and then/and send it far away- easy tunes for banjo). Oh shite, oh no, not this. I’ve lost the bloody address! Phone! No, not here, not yet, everything is fucking not yet!
Fuck you too old lady! I’ve got to stand up to search these pockets. Oh God! No! Sit down, it’s not there. Where are we now?
That’s it, I can get out at the next stop and ask. It’s all I can do, ask. I hate that, asking.
Lord, she is so beautiful, does she even know where I am? She doesn’t, I’m sure of it, I don’t think she even knows exactly where I work. If I have to walk the entire district, I’ll find her.
Hold it now, the square, what did she say about the square?
“You’ll love it, it looks like a rundown area and really grotty, people say it’s dangerous, but it’s not, not really anyway, if you’re able to just blend in, be like you’re from there, you know what I mean?” She’d licked her finger then, having gently run it around the rim of her wine glass. I admired her easy confidence. She was someone who had great strength hidden way down deep and only seemed so fragile on the outside. Inside I felt she was all cool, deep, still.
“Tell me more,” I remember asking, putting extra briquettes on the fire, pouring another glass each of the supermarket wine, “I want to know everything.”
She’d smiled knowingly, telling him there wasn’t much else to say and that anyway, he’d see it all for himself soon enough.
She had added something, what the hell was it?
“There’s the square of course, it’s nothing we’d call a square but it’s used as a reference, coming out from town when you get in you take the first right at the square, second left after that and number ten, that’s where we’re going to end up, I promise.”
“Excuse me, where’s the square, I’m looking for a place called the square?”
No go. Why did they all look at me like I wanted to steal the pennies from their dead grannies eyes?
“Excuse me please? Could you show me the way to the square? I’m trying to get there and I don’t know, maybe I’m lost?
“Brother, you don’t want to go there, mean people up there.”
Something in the way it was said made him think, hope, that everywhere beyond the youngster’s immediate surrounds was full of mean people. He already knew that for some, many, the world was a very narrow place indeed.
Other voices chimed in, “don’t be so mean yourself, the man wants help, help him out, if he wants to go to the square, hey, let’s send him on his way!”
This last brought a burst of laughing, even giggling.
“Please, I’ve got to get there, I’m looking for someone.”
“We’re all looking for someone, brother, but we don’t all find him!” More laughing, giggling, shuffling feet around.
The youngest one, a girl, finally said, “you just turn left here, baby, you’ll find what you’re looking for at the end of that long stretch of road. Take care like he said. As far as we know, they really are something else up there!”
Mumbling some sort of thanks I jostled his past others, round the corner while the five youngsters, all darkly dressed in spite of the warmth of the day went on their way, earbuds back in place, shouting over their own private music, on their way in the eternal pursuit of happiness.
Further down the road a cafe sign beckoned. Thirsty for coffee, eager to pause for a bit, draw breath, rest my feet, I stepped inside.
Incredibly, she was there, alone at a table in the cooler shade further inside. Hair different from the last time he saw her, somehow, but beyond all doubt, it was her. She was there.
I thought I could never mistake that poise, that coolness and elegance, even in these decayed surroundings.
“Hello,” she said, “you must be getting good at finding your way around.”
“Sort of,” I replied, sitting down opposite her, calmed by her presence, the fear and the fright of the lost address all gone now. I would say nothing of the last hour’s panic.
“I was on my way up to see you and I was, well, nearly lost, so believe it or not I was just stepping in here for a chance to rest my weary bones!”
“You mean, ‘of all the gin-joints in all the world’, sort of thing?”
“Something like that, anyway, it’s so good to see you again. Do you know that’s nearly the longest we’ve been apart since we first met?”
“Yes,” she said, as she rhythmically turned a matchbox over and over between thumb and forefinger, “I suppose it is. But, I think we’re going to have a hell of an evening.” I thought her eyes sparkled as she spoke, he relaxed even more.
After coffee, cigarettes and more coffee and talking and more cigarettes, we finally left. Arm-in-arm we walked through the streets. I wondered then why I hadn’t seen all the colour before, at least not like this. The setting sun burned a light on the upper half of one side of the street, the light climbed higher and higher as the sun sank lower and the shadows first softened, then deepened as lights were turned on here and there.
Groups of people, little knots of acquaintances, friends, neighbours, began to gather in those places where the pools of light would be strongest when night was at it’s darkest. They seemed drawn, each to their own place, like moths with a need to preen and parade for each other in easily confident ways.
Turning a final corner she told me we were nearly there and I thought, even as I looked, that I would always remember the way she tossed her hair in a gesture of delight and seemed to skip along a path lined on either side by plain, functional, rusting, railings.
She stopped where the path gave way to a short flight of concrete steps leading to a line of small shops, most of them closed, but light from the end shop, a grocer’s, still illuminated the concrete and brick, the graffiti and rubbish, the papers scattered everywhere. I loved her then, I loved all that, her city, the strangeness of the place, all that I was learning about here, about myself.
“Have you any money with you, I mean real money, there’s a few things I want to get for us?”
“Of course I have.” I loved it, she was delighted, I took from my wallet notes, two fifties, some twenties, gave them to her.
“More!” she said, “More!” Her voice betrayed a rising excitement, I pressed more money into her hands, she turned and raced back down the steps, “wait for me,” I called out.
As I followed her down the steps I noticed the lights in the grocery shop were gone, even the steel shutters were now in place and I wondered where she would get anything for a meal for us now. Then I noticed the group under the lamplight at the end of the row. I watched her go to them, I could see their easy laughter and smiles as I went to them. I saw their clothes, their hair styles, their differing colour hues. I realised they spoke with her as one among equals and then I felt uncomfortable in my new-for-the-office suit and now I wanted to know what she was doing, but a hand on the forearm stopped me and a voice of serious and deep tones said, “where you goin' around here?”
I shook my arm free and replied, “what’s it to you?” and she called out, “it’s OK Jimmy, he’s with me.”
Jimmy, taller than me, younger, looked at me carefully, muttering in a low, menacing voice, “that’s all right then Irish, but you really should watch just who it is you insult around here.”
By this time I’d edged nearer her, protective or self-preservation? Who can tell? I could say nothing, watched in pure dumb horror as she gave to a small, wizened, youngster all the money I’d given her and in turn the gnarled hands of the street-wise entrepreneur reached deep into a greasy green army surplus jacket, gave her two foil wrapped packets and told her the bigger was “some good H’” and the smaller was “fresh C”.
Into my mind there popped an absurd connection with a B&B we’d been in, about. Must have been two months back and even that thought vanished as I heard her say something about work? Was it? I found it hard to follow the scene as greasy jacket reached for something else, handing her a cling film wrapped syringe and the tall one called Jimmy was saying to me, “just this one time, Irish, next time you bring your own.”
I couldn’t help it, my hand jerked and the syringe fell from hers and there was a tiny tinkling sound as if someone had dropped a Christmas Decoration and it shattered.
“What you do that for?” Angry faces, voices raised. “Who are you coming around here throwing your weight around?” It felt like space was diminishing, I was being crowded.
She was on the ground now, kneeling, picking up the broken pieces as angry tears dropped down her face and little sobs shook her shoulders. She never looked at me again after my hand first moved, after the syringe fell and broke, not once did she look at me.
Jimmy looked at me.
Jimmy’s eyes burned into mine and he said, “you’ve hurt our little girl, why you want to do that?’
With the sounds of her sobbing and Jimmy’s voice ringing around me I turned and ran. He ran and he stayed running and the crowds and the lamplights and the colours all combined to weave a different kind of spell and I tried to lose himself in its protection.
As the bus left I looked back once and saw at least two of the faces from the lamplit scene where she was fixed in memory, at least two and they were craning their necks while their eyes probed the throngs as if they hunted a dangerous and despicable prey.
A week later the production Assistant I’d first noticed came over to my work station and asked “how are you settling in? Getting used to things now?”
With a depth of feeling that was surprising I told her, “oh, sure, I’m well used to the way things are now.”
Saying she was glad she moved on, I wondered had I come on too strong, maybe she’d have talked more? Changing my mind I decided not to ask her out for dinner.
Best to leave it so, after all, seems to me you never really can tell.
With one of his supersonic breaths and a flick of his maximum strength hips, Captain Wonder performed a forward salto and then a backward one before volleying, with double force, Mouse Evil’s most aggressive attack. His response concluded with a full twisting double tuck followed by a layout double Arabian.
Mouse Evil was smashed to smithereens. Anyone who threatened Planet Earth wound up getting punished. Evildoers’ henchmen, too, got chastened. More exactly, Squeaky Door and Martian Sulfur were dispatched to the fire and ice penitentiary run by the Do-Gooders’ security staff. Crime did not pay and crime against humanity paid even worse.
Stephen took a sip of his lukewarm coffee. That episode had required fourteen takes. His throat felt scratchy.
The engineer in charge of recording, editing, mixing, and matching the cartoon characters and the voiceover actors’ speeches nodded from his control booth. He gestured with a shoulder toward the breakroom.
Stephen shrugged at the engineer and then slipped a granola bar out of a shirt pocket, instead. He couldn’t stand cigarette smoke and knew there were only fifteen minutes before the cast had to record the next scene. It wasn’t worth his bother to go all the way down the hall and then all the way back to the production room.
The engineer shrugged before redirecting his attention to his computer. He would use generic sound files to fill in the noise of vehicles, people, and random objects crashing, breaking, or being reduced to fragments.
Stephen exhaled noisily. His was a good gig that had lasted, so far, seven and a half years. He enjoyed playing a hero and didn’t mind that Captain Wonder had a disease that made him invincible to projectiles, but blind in sunlight. It was good for children to learn about and to love champions with disabilities.
He, moreover, enjoyed having to change his cadence and pitch whenever antagonists such as Little Miss Doom, Mouse Evil, The Tyrannical Brain, or Sadistic Strongman got vanquished. It would be unseemly for Earth’s guardian to gloat. Lesser miens were the province of wicked boys and wicked girls.
To wit, Stephen didn’t know how Jerry Marianum and Tabatha Doicia could still smile after a day’s worth of voicing baddies since all of their characters were regularly overpowered. Like ancient myths or other consistent, predictable patternings in global storytelling, Captain Wonder’s adventures always, without exception, ended with him posed as the lionheart who, through a combination of hew and humility, plus a touch of intelligence, defeated whichever scoundrel lurked.
It seemed like the public liked such pablum since the show was in its eighth year. To bolster that profitable popularity, the production company hosted fan nights. Additionally, the company employed two interns to exclusively respond to website questions posted by devotees.
To boot, a company vice president represented Captain Wonder at comic book conventions. An executive, not Stephen was the show’s face as Stephen had successfully persuaded the board of directors that to maintain Captain Wonder’s mystique, Stephen ought never to appear in public under the Captain Wonder guise.
Jerry and Tabatha teased Stephen about the parties, the fan girls, the fan boys, the corporate sponsorships and the other perks that he was missing. Stephen would usually just look through them in answer.
Over the years, many viewers had written to the production company about how much they loved that the Captain giggled in a way as to not appear indomitable. Often, admirers asked for autographed pictures of Captain Wonder, but not one of them ever received a photograph of the voiceover actor who played him. Stephen’s expensive lawyer had helped him seal his contract against such provisions.
Granola bar and coffee gone, he reached for a bottle of water. His was thirsty work.
Next, Stephen readjusted his microphone and headphones. The director indicated that it was time to read the new scene. In that passage, Captain Wonder would be trapped by Little Miss Doom in a chamber strobing with artificial suns. Although his tinted glasses were confiscated, somehow, Captain Wonder was able to communicate with the Do-Gooders.
Stephen snorted. Even if superhuman, Captain Wonder ought not to have had an unlimited tolerance for pain.
After soirees and before holidays, the show’s writers got excessively inventive. Like Stephen, most of them had graduated with useless degrees in English or philosophy. One aspired to be a social worker, but never matriculated past his undergraduate sociology degree. Another had majored in management, but was, Stephen suspected, a high functioning, never diagnosed and never treated, sufferer of autism.
Be that as it may, improvisation was frowned upon. So, Stephen began to read into his microphone, verbatim, the scene’s opening lines.
Moments later, Jerry and Tabatha returned to the recording booth, making enough noise with their belated entrance to cause the engineer future headaches. Immediately, over a secondary channel, the director yelled at them.
Stephen coughed a little at the smell of cigarettes his peers brought into the space. They were sweet associates, and he forgave them their higher salaries even though he voiced the show’s star. Those two voiced all of the rest of the characters.
Tabatha held up an index finger to her lips in indication of the cough that the engineer would have to digitally erase. She then flashed an engagement ring-bedecked finger at Stephen. As Captain Wonder’s real-life counterpart gasped silently, Little Miss Doom complained about how tedious it was for a rogue to have to compete with a miracle man, who was married to his quest to preserve justice and homemade blueberry pie.
Rather than shudder anew at the script, Stephen raised an eyebrow in question.
Tabatha inclined her head toward Jerry, who was as red as the flags on Captain Wonder’s citadel.
Stephen nearly groaned into his microphone, but was already feeling sheepish about the cough that he had already added to the recording. He hoped that Tabatha and Jerry would stay in Vancouver and continue to act alongside of him. They were more than good colleagues - they were friends.
Once, when the city’s bus drivers were on strike for a week, Tabatha had brought her van to Stephen’s door every morning and had dropped him back at his building every evening. Another time, when Stephen’s cat had gotten out, Jerry had headed up the search. Although the pet was eventually found dead in the territory of some rabid dogs, that is, near the construction site a few blocks from Stephen’s apartment, that weekend, Jerry had seemed more of a hero than even Captain Wonder.
A voice in Stephen’s earpiece returned his attention to the script. With bravado, Captain Wonder welcomed his echolocating bats, Bradly, Samantha, and Guinevere. Those familiars often aided the marvel when he faced down evildoers. With great magnanimity, he produced a banquet of fruit for his winged friends. “Oranges, mangoes, and yes, we have bananas,” intoned Captain Wonder.
Stephen could not help shaking his head. The show’s biggest sponsor, a pet food manufacturer, had asked the production company to create an episode that would segue nicely into an infomerical about caring for puppies and kittens.
The voice actor far preferred scenes in which Captain Wonder was hanging by his hood from a great precipice or in which he was being crisped by a fire monster. Mawkish matters didn’t resonate with his youngest audience. A legend could be saccharine, but honeyed deeds had to be balanced with the right amount of pungent discourse if a superhero’s ability to instill fear in his enemies was to be credible.
Stephen regarded his coworkers. Jerry was still blushing. Tabatha was still gushing.
Later that afternoon, after Captain Wonder’s chief companion, an elderly Komodo dragon, was revealed to be evidencing the three forms of senescence typical of lizards, including and especially a decreased metabolism, the director called it a day. The company’s sales office had sent a text message that they were selling a product insertion in that scene and that as a result both the writers and the actors would have to redo it.
Jerry offered to go with Stephen to the bus stop, but Stephen declined because he did not want to again witness his colleague go red in the face. Stephen countered with an offer to meet Jerry for coffee at a nearby smoke-free café at hour before the next day’s recording session began.
Stephen wondered how recordings would change when Jerry and Tabatha moved on. They had confided that they would try to buyout their respective contracts. If they succeeded, the director would have to audition replacements.
The next day, Stephen spoke with the sound engineer about how the show would change without Jerry and Tabatha. While listening to Stephen vent, the engineer had reached for a cigarette and had lit it despite the fact that smoking was forbidden everywhere in the studio. Putting his arm around Stephen, he grunted about how he was going to have to match the voice prints of the substitutes to those of the original actors. He would need a vacation when the season was over.
Stephen let his mind wander to the kind of vacation that he, himself, would enjoy. He’d disconnect from the Internet and let his answering machine take all of his calls. He’d wear his flannel pajamas for days on end and eat only popcorn. Probably, he’d keep his shades closed, too.
If he had take-out delivered and laundry picked up, he could live as an urban hermit for the entire fortnight that represented the break between seasons. He certainly had the funds to do so.
One shelf in his apartment was covered by the herd of origami animals that he had fashioned out of fives, tens and twenties. If he sacrificed those beasts, he wouldn’t even have to bother going to an ATM during his two week hiatus.
Another day later, when Stephen gave an impromptu reading of the lines, which, allegedly, the writers had spent two entire days and nights retooling, at the cost to the company of Moroccan takeout and Philippine neck massages, he stopped articulating abruptly. It made no sense to him that Captain Wonder would shuttle his scaly friend to Planet Z, where the beast would retire in comfort. It was known in the world of speculative fiction that attending and obeying animals would rather die accompanying their humans on missions than give up their work. Besides, it would make for interesting plot twist if the dragon’s infirmity compromised the Captain’s ability to safeguard the Earth.
The director yelled at Stephen and reminded him that despite his long tenure at the company, he was easily replaceable. What’s more since they were already behind deadline, objections were intolerable.
Stephen swallowed his words. Working for the studio was fun. Except for the portion of his contract that stipulated he had to be available, albeit at double pay, for two holiday specials, his was a straightforward, creative employment.
That night, he rode his regular bus, the one with the kneeling stairs, home. The regular driver greeted him warmly and the regular commuters moved over to make room for him. They didn’t know he was Captain Wonder; they considered him another regular rider from their return commute.
The following morning, when the team was voicing the final retake, Captain Wonder faced down a pack of kids, all of whom were less than five feet tall, and all of whom were gathered in a moment of civil unrest. He was supposed to offer those children a trip, on the flaps of his miracle cape, to the local dog pound, where he would encourage them to call their parents, and where arrangements would be made for them to provide forever homes for the pound’s strays. The pet food company had signed up for two future seasons of ads.
To voice that gang of youngsters, Jerry and Tabatha, with the director’s blessing, had recruited their siblings, all of whom were in town for Jerry and Tabatha’s engagement party.
The actors’ booth was crowded with people ranging in age from twenty-something to nearly fifty. Fortunately, only a few of them had given Stephen the side-eye.
Having deposited the mini gangsters at the animal shelter and having speed dialed all of their parents using his super powers, Captain Wonder flew back into the sky, without his trusty Komodo Dragon and without his sunglasses. Age was making him forgetful.
As Jerry and Tabatha read the credits, Captain Wonder spoke again of searching the universe. It was his job to find beneficent assistant bank managers, lost tentacle monsters, and Paralympic athletes faced with politically incorrect journalists.
Afterwards, some of Jerry and Tabatha’s relatives tried to take selfies with Stephen, both openly and furtively. Company guards permanently confiscated all of their cellphones. The director took liberties in threatening and cajoling Stephen, yet the producers insisted that no one aggravate their star.
Some of those relatives of the soon-to-be-wed hissed at the man behind Captain Wonder, threatening that he dare not show up at the nuptials, the bride and groom’s wishes notwithstanding. One of the younger cousins, tears running down both of her cheeks, kicked Stephen before an older cousin grabbed her and pulled her away.
Stephen sighed. He liked his coworkers, but hated confrontation. Now he would have to think for himself whether it would be worth his while to try to attend Jerry and Tabatha’s wedding.
The conflict between him and their families was stupid, in his estemation. His face was not worth filming. Altogether, he was far from photogenic.
Similarly, few of his devotees would follow him if they saw his apartment with its kitchen sink full of dishes and his bedroom with its high piles of laundry. Unlike Captain Wonder, who was always energized, Stephen was usually too tired for anything, including chores, once he came home from work. Also, unlike Captain Wonder, Stephen found helpers to be intrusive.
Before she left the building, the older cousin, the one who had manhandled the aggressor, made a point of coming up to Stephen and of thanking him for voicing her favorite cartoon character. She confided that she felt it a privilege to have met “Captain Wonder’s alias” and that she would tell her children, when they were old enough to appreciate such things, about her momentous day.
Eventually, the room cleared. The engineer waved at Stephen from his booth and pantomimed smoking a cigarette. Stephen shook his head and smiled. He stopped at the other’s work area for a short chat, which became a long chat, which became the reason for his delay in leaving the studio and for his missing his regular bus.
The other passengers on the later bus regarded Stephen as one more thing to cram into the crowded aisle. The driver just yelled at Stephen to clear that space so he could pull away from the curb.
Stephen was more tired than he had realized. As the bus wove through traffic, he fell asleep and nearly missed his stop. No one on that later bus knew when to rouse him or that he would have gladly received a little help with deboarding.
He wondered if those strangers would have valued him had they known he voiced Captain Wonder. It was probable that at least some of them, upon getting home, would grab a quick bite from their refrigerators to bring it to the tube to watch his show. Maybe, after the credits rolled, some of them would even enter a chatroom to discuss that episode. Some of them might additionally click a link on that page to receive a discount coupon for pet food.
No one knew, however, who Stephen was and he did not tell them. As it were, he had to ask a grandmotherly-looking lady to move over so that he could exit the bus. In the animated world, Captain Wonder would have flown her home and then taken all of her garbage to the dumpster, but only after producing a beautiful flower arrangement for her pleasure.
In the real world, though, it was the grandmother who helped him, who offered to take him home to feed him “a proper meal of hot food,” and who wanted him to see her window garden of unhappy succulents. Cacti did not thrive behind uninsulated panes of glass in autumnal Vancouver.
Unfortunately, that do-gooder had no idea how to help Stephen off of the bus. Unfortunately, no other unfamiliar passenger or the driver, himself, lifted a hand in aid. Consequently, Stephen spent an unplanned vacation in the hospital.
It had taken the paramedics too many minutes to rescue him. He had huffed and shivered, further impairing his already useless limbs, as he lay on the ground. Captain Wonder had slipped from his wheelchair.
Francesca Baker is a word loving, music obsessive, creative soul with a passion for communication, inspiration and wellness.