Once, there was a superhero who didn’t know how to fly. He was on his fourth drink, and his tie hung limply around his collar. His face was in shadow hiding the stubble on his chin. He was slumped back in his chair and swirled his drink. He absentmindedly tapped his other hand to the slow country music piped in through the dim light. A TV in the corner flashed the sad state of the news. He shook his head, careful not to make eye contact with anyone in particular.
The bar was relatively still. People were nursing their drinks or talking quietly with their heads almost touching. It looked like a photograph that had been frozen in time.
The man took a drink and reached into his pocket. He brought out a shiny silver coin. He passed the coin over his knuckles, and it danced from thumb over to pinky and back again, glinting in the pale bar light. When it reached his thumb, he flicked it so that it tumbled on itself, and the air sang with a metallic chorus.
He leaned over and said, “I’ve always been good with my hands.” He wiggled his fingers and smiled.
“I remember loving magic as a kid. We would go to my grandma’s house with the rest of my mom’s family. Christmas Eve was a huge dinner with all my aunts and uncles and cousins. I was an only child, so getting to spend Christmas with kids my age was always nice. We would stay up late telling scary stories, all the while Mom kept coming in to tell us to cut it out and get to bed before Santa gave up on us and passed the house over altogether.
“My mom was like the glue that held us all together. She was the oldest, and she looked after everyone. Even though Christmas was at Grandma’s, we all knew that Mom was in charge.
“One year, Mom bought me this magician’s kit. I can still see the living room on Christmas morning. Mom had a fire going already, and I could smell breakfast cooking on the stove. I was the first one awake, and I remember shuffling down the hall to the living room. The tree was perfect. Presents were piled high, and right in front sat a black magician’s case.
“Of course my cousins all woke up a few minutes later and pushed me aside. They ripped open presents while my mom tried to take pictures and make sure we all ate breakfast. I grabbed the magician’s case and ran straight to the back bedroom to start practicing. At Christmas dinner that afternoon, I had already mastered a coin trick.”
As he spoke, he held the coin in the air. It glinted, and with a wave of his hands, it disappeared. He wiggled his fingers to show that it wasn’t hiding anywhere, and with a second wave of his hands, the coin reappeared. The man smiled.
“God bless my mom. I know I was a handful.” He laughed and took a sip of his drink.
“When I was ten, I was convinced that I could fly. I used to love Superman as a kid. He was the coolest because he was born to be Superman, you know. He didn’t have to wait around for a radioactive spider or an experimental serum. He just was Superman. I wanted to be just like him. So I just knew I could fly.
“I did that stupid thing that you see in the movies, where the kid ties a blanket around their neck and tries to fly, except I chose to fly off the second story of our house. I remember standing up there and not feeling afraid or hesitant. I just took a breath and stepped off. I don’t know how to explain it. I just knew that I could fly.
“That is until I came to on the grass of the front lawn with my mother hugging me and screaming my name. I remember being confused and a little woozy, but surprisingly, I wasn’t hurt. I didn’t even break a bone. I must have given my mom a heart attack.”
The man took another sip from his glass and tucked his coin back into his shirt pocket.
“That was after my dad left. The one thing I remember about him is that he loved to drink Scotch on the rocks. I can still see his glass in his hand, although I can’t picture his face. My mom said one day he just went off to work, and we never saw him again. He left all his clothes in the closet, all of his personal belongings, and never came back. It was like he just disappeared.
“Of course, I missed him. What son doesn’t want his dad to take him out and play catch or go fishing or get greasy working on cars in the yard? My other friends’ dads took them to baseball games or taught them how to swim. I had none of that. I was raised to be a man by a woman who only knew men who would leave her one day.”
The man shook his head and took another drink.
“I remember dressing up in his suits and playing with his things that Mom packed up and stacked in the garage. She never threw them away. Sometimes I think she was hoping that he’d show back up one day. A part of me wished the same thing.
“My dad is what first got me into photography. He had this old camera, and I’d take pictures every chance I got, even when I didn’t have film. I took some photography classes in college. I was pretty good actually. My girlfriend at the time used to tease me. She used to say that I was obsessed with stopping time, with freezing a moment and capturing the essence of a single second in time. She said it was like magic. But that was all before Mom died.”
He took another drink and winced.
“She had Alzheimer’s disease. One day I called her, and she didn’t know who I was. I came to visit, and when we were sitting in the living room, she saw a picture I took and didn’t recognize herself. She said she was fine. She had skipped breakfast and was feeling a little out of it. And, stupidly, I let it go.
“I called her every few months but didn’t get a chance to visit her until a few years later. I know, I should have come earlier, but I got busy and life just caught up with me. When she answered the door, I was in shock. It looked like she had aged 20 years. Her hair was long and piled in a mess on the top of her head. Her clothes were so thin and tattered that they hung off her arms and legs. I don’t think she had bathed in a year. And she was just skin and bones. I didn’t know when she had last eaten. She looked at me with lost eyes and muttered that she must have just forgotten.
“There was this smell that hit me as I came it. It was like garbage and feces, old and rotten. All of her knick knacks, dishes, and bowls were wrapped up in paper towels and newspaper. The windows were wallpapered in old mail and tape. The bathroom was overflowing with water from where she tried to flush all her jewelry and silverware down the toilet. Mold climbed up the walls.
“I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t take her in. I had just gotten married, and we were expecting a baby. I did the only thing I could think to do; I called a facility. They came and took her away. She was so confused, so scared. Even I was a stranger to her. And we took her away from her home.
“I visited a few times. The place was small but nice. They made sure she was clean and that she ate every day. The next time I came to visit, she was in her bed. The nurses said that one day she sat down and just forgot how to walk. So she never got up again.
“And visiting her wasn’t the same. She looked like my mom, but it was like she wasn’t there. She didn’t remember Christmases or how I jumped off of the roof. She didn’t even know who I was.”
The man paused and took a breath.
“I still remember the day they called me. They said that I needed to come quick, that it was an emergency. She woke up that morning and forgot how to swallow, and she had spiked a fever. Her heartbeat and breathing were irregular. She didn’t have much longer.
“God, the way she looked when I walked in. They had an oxygen mask over her face, and she was gasping for breath. She was so small there in the hospital bed. She looked like a skeleton. Her eyes were red and exhausted. She could barely sit up.
“I sat with her and held her whispering over and over, ‘It’s okay. I’m here. You’re safe. I love you. I’ve got you. I’m going to stay with you and hold you. I won’t leave this time, I promise. I love you.’ I just whispered over and over and over. I didn’t know what else to do.”
The man looked at his hands.
“We sat there like that for three days. I wished there was something I could do. Something I could fix. But all I could do was hold her. And on that third night, she forgot how to breathe. She passed away in her sleep. Even though I was there holding her, it still wasn’t enough. I blamed myself for everything.”
The man cleared his throat and downed the rest of his drink. Seeing this, the bartender replaced his glass with a fresh drink. The man nodded in thanks.
“I tried to return to life like everything was normal, but I couldn’t. The bills were piling up and photography wasn’t making any money, so I took odd jobs to get by. My wife bonded with my kid more than me, and sometimes I would sit back and watch them. They were so happy together. The house was filled with laughter, but I had no place. I had no purpose. That’s when I started staying out. It’s, also, when I started to drink.”
The man lifted his glass and took another drink. His eyes were glassy and sad.
“I don’t think I’ve picked up a camera in years. Not since my wife and kid left. It’s just not the same. Why would I want to stop time in a place where they’re gone? It’s pointless.”
The man cleared his throat and sipped. The music filled the silence above us.
“Now? I work in sales. Newspaper sales, more specifically. I call old accounts and see if they want to reactivate their subscription. I guess it’s like Clark Kent, except I’m not writing the news or making it; I’m selling it instead. I’m pretty good at it, actually. I can read people, you know? I know what they need to hear before they even say it. It pays the bills. Besides, it’s only me now.”
Without pacing himself, the man downed the entirety of his drink.
“Sometimes, I think that if I was just given a chance, I could have been somebody. Superman at least had his parents to help him. His dad taught him morals, and he never had to hold his mother while she died. He never had a wife and kid who were better off without him. And he had a purpose, you know? He was saving the world. And here I am, alone and selling things people don’t need.”
The man put down a wad of money on the bar and nodded at the bartender.
“See you next time, Mitch. And it was nice talking to you.”
The man left, swaying slightly on his feet. The cool night air swept into the stale bar as he opened the door to the velvety, cold night and stepped into the dark.
As the bar emptied, the bartender wiped down all the tables and counters. Above his head, the news played as he scrubbed. The newswoman was reporting live from an incident in town. A man crossing the Overton Bridge thought he saw someone in distress in the frigid waters below. He stopped his car and dove in. Intoxicated and freezing, the man quickly drowned in the bitterly cold waters. Police spotted his stopped car on the bridge and quickly found his body floating in the water below. Police blamed alcohol and the freezing temperatures for the death. And sadly, the person he was trying to rescue turned out to be a floating bag of trash.
Unaware of the news above him, the bartender wiped his last table. He turned off the TV and the lights. Then, he quickly locked the front door, rushing eagerly to get home to his family in time to make them a fresh breakfast.
Aimee Hardy is a writer and educator from Atlanta, GA. She is married, has two children, and currently lives just outside of Birmingham, AL. She studied literature in college and has spent the last five years writing and teaching students how to develop their own voice. She has published works in Adelaide Literary Magazine and will be in Running Wild Press’ Anthology of Stories Volume 4 this Spring. For more information on Aimee Hardy, please visit aimeehardy.com.