By Nick Kocz
Hours after Jill gave birth to our first child, Superman knocked on the door to our maternity room. We were friends, Superman and I. The previous day, he foiled one of Lex Luther’s diabolical plots. Now, he swaggered into the room carrying six dozen red roses that he tossed on Jill’s bed as she slept. His archenemy was behind bars again, and you could tell from the way he cocked his head, the squiggle of black hair falling over his forehead, that he was proud—he was a man so proud of his manhood that he could walk freely in broad daylight wearing a bright blue leotard and red cape without fear of ridicule. He was at the top of his game, and the pride that he took in his accomplishments was infectious. If he could foil criminal masterminds, surely I could handle whatever mundane duties came my way.
“Gee! How you doing?” Superman asked.
I was fine. More than fine. Stephen, my new baby, was resting under bilirubin phototherapy lamps in the hospital nursery to treat the peachy tinge of neonatal jaundice, a condition of no lasting consequence. The birth was an especially long one, Jill’s water breaking 48 hours before Stephen crowned. Just standing next to her all that time was exhausting. And exhilarating. What I did was nothing compared to the push push push that Jill went through. She perspired tremendously from the strain and I wiped the sweat from her head, held her hand, and massaged her thighs, which were constantly cramping.
“You held her hand for two days?”
“It was wonderful. And then seeing Stephen come out. It’s just . . . ” I couldn’t describe the elation. Above Jill’s bed hung a framed Thomas Kinkade poster of a gas lamp-lit cobblestone village. Before Superman arrived, I had been imagining how satisfying it would be to take up residence in one of those serene Kinkade cottages, snowflakes falling outside our windows as we gathered inside around the fireplace to roast marshmallows and drink cocoa. I wanted that kind of idyllic existence. Never had I felt closer to my wife. “I can’t describe the feeling. It was wonderful. That sounds so sappy, doesn’t it?”
“That’s swell!” Superman picked up one of the complimentary parenting magazines that the hospital supplied and rifled its pages. We had kept in touch for years, Superman and I. He’d call my office to get together for lunch or dinner, maybe a round of drinks or take in a ballgame, things we’d been doing since our college days. This continued even after I married Jill. He’d call and we’d go out, but sometimes work or Jill would get in the way and I’d have to decline. Still, we kept in touch. Constitutionally immune to complexity, his favorite expressions were “Great!” “Swell!” and “Super!” Once, in an awkward effort to update his vocabulary, he told me that my blue-and-red striped necktie was “Stellar!” and then looked sheepishly from side to side until he asked, “Is that how they say it? Stellar?” I assured him that that was indeed how they said it, but never heard the word again from his lips. “Did I tell you how I foiled Lex Luther? X-Ray vision sure comes in handy.”
Just then, a nurse—Nurse Namoff—entered the room and gave a start when she saw the roses covering Jill’s bed. The way she reacted, it was as if she thought the flowers posed a deadly threat. She wore the kind of folded white cardboard nurses’ hat that I would have thought went out of fashion with Clara Barton. A white smock hid all but the pleated skirt of her brown dress. She scowled at the flowers, and then pivoted around to face Superman, before announcing, “Official hospital visiting hours for the day are over.”
“But this is Superman,” I said.
Nurse Namoff let out a sigh. Of course she knew it was Superman. The way she sneered, touching her forehead, made me feel suddenly the dunderhead for pointing out the obvious. Who else would have a large yellow “S” emblazoned on the chest of his blue superhero costume? She raised her wrist, ostensibly to look at her watch. “Well. Maybe he can stay a few minutes more.”
“That would be great!” Superman said. “I’d love to stay here a few more minutes!”
Nurse Namoff glanced at him. “I’m sure you would.”
Jill shifted in her sleep, rolling against the metal restraining bar on her hospital bed. Earlier, we played with the bed’s controls—raising her head, lowering her feet, and tilting her this way and that as if the bed were a funhouse ride—when the same nurse who now wanted to exclude Superman from our room scolded us. Now Nurse Namoff adjusted the thin green hospital blanket over her patient, but it was no use: a moment later, Jill awoke, throwing off her blanket.
“Congratulations, ma’am!” Superman said, his voice a rich baritone that imparted compassionate authority. Jill brightened instantly. From somewhere in the room came a breeze that unfurled his red cape. Even Nurse Namoff was impressed. I used to think that only Mary Tyler Moore had the power to turn the whole world on with her smile but Superman had it too, that positive energizing vibe. Had there been a speeding bullet in our vicinity, surely he would have stopped it.
“Do you want to see your baby?” Nurse Namoff asked.
“Stephen,” I said, saying his name for the first time. While Jill had slept, I filled out the official paperwork. We had agreed upon the name beforehand, but I still felt guilty for squeezing her out of that momentous process and taking it upon myself to sign the documents.
“That’s a swell name!” Superman said.
Nurse Namoff excused herself to get Stephen from the nursery. Though still waking, Jill was alert enough to attribute the roses scattered on her bed to Superman, knowing that spectacular gestures were his forte. She held one of the buds and sniffed it, a pleasing smile coming over her face.
To my surprise, Superman blushed. “You guys are so lucky! I mean, really. I bet you are going to have lots of babies.”
Jill winced. “Lots?”
“You won’t want Stephen to be an only child, will you?” Superman said.
“You were an only child.”
Superman’s eyes widened. “Hey! I was! Wasn’t I?”
Nurse Namoff returned, wheeling in Stephen, who was asleep in what appeared to be a Plexiglas tote on top of a stainless steel cart. Moments after his birth, nurses had recorded his weight as eight pounds six ounces but already, bundled in blue flannel swaddling blankets, he seemed bigger. Lest there be any confusion about his gender, a blue knit ski hat that proclaimed, “I’m a boy!” engulfed his head. A blue balloon was tied to one of the cart’s steel legs. I’d been wearing the same oxford shirt for three days, ever since Jill called me at the office to say her water broke, and that oxford shirt, while wrinkled, was also blue. We were boys—Stephen, Superman, and I—and I wanted to believe we’d be boys for the rest of our uncomplicated boy lives, hanging out together and doing boy things like repairing engine head gaskets on refurbished Fords and afterwards sitting on a couch and gnawing the meat off chicken wings while watching baseball games and debating why, exactly, there just aren’t many stellar middle relievers anymore.
“He’s great!” Superman said. The force of his exuberance was such that the Thomas Kinkade poster shook in its frame above Jill’s bed. “Say! Can I hold him?”
Bundled as he was in his swaddling blanket, Stephen looked like an otherworldly blue mummy. Jill bit her lip. I could see that she wanted first crack at holding Stephen, but reluctantly she gave her assent, nodding.
As soon as he lifted Stephen from the cart, Superman wobbled backwards. And then Superman looked at me, scared. He tried to laugh, but perspiration broke out over his forehead. He staggered back a few steps and plopped into a chair. His breath was labored, raspy. He wiped his brow with the tail-end of his red cape. “He’s heavy. Really. He’s heavy.”
Stephen slumped awkwardly onto Superman’s lap. Earlier, Nurse Namoff had cautioned us that, “a baby’s neck muscles are not developed enough to support the weight of his head.” When holding him, care had to be taken to support his neck with one hand while cradling the body with the opposite arm. Superman, apparently, knew nothing about proper baby-holding techniques. Stephen’s head flopped to one side.
Seeing this, Jill turned to me and gasped. “Jack, the baby.”
Normally keen to people’s concerns of imminent danger, Superman rested his head in his hands in a manner that oddly reminded me of how my father had looked the day I came home from high school and found him alone at the kitchen table clutching a teaspoon. His hair had started to gray the previous autumn, but until that afternoon it hadn’t registered on me that my father was getting older. I thought he’d forever be a young man. He had just been laid off from the Chevy plant on Delaware Avenue. Mom wasn’t home yet from her own job at the SuperMart, where she sliced bologna and head cheese behind the deli counter. I said hello to Dad three times, but, caught in a trance, he didn’t stir. Finally, I asked if he wanted to throw the football around with me, and he jerked his head up and dropped the teaspoon against an empty saucer and said sure, but when we got outside, he grabbed a baseball from the grass and we threw that instead.
“Superman,” I said.
But Superman didn’t respond.
Stephen sat precariously on Superman’s knee, his head wobbly and unsupported.
I became aware of Nurse Namoff rushing across the room, the pleats of her brown dress billowing out as she swept around me. Perhaps I too was caught in a trance. I wanted to believe that Superman would never let harm befall any person, but then the nurse relieved Superman of the baby and our baby whimpered and I looked at Superman, his arms muscular but inert like steel beams weighing him to the chair.
“He’s all right,” Nurse Namoff said, rocking the baby in her arms. Stephen squiggled, momentarily exposing a foot through the folds of his swaddling blanket. “You’ve got yourself quite a lively fella. You know that?”
A call came over the hospital intercom paging a certain doctor. All of us looked at each other as if it were our names being called. And then Nurse Namoff said, “Perhaps you’d like to allow the new parents some alone time?”
The nurse’s words took a few moments to register on Superman. He expended great effort just to raise his head. Red welts, the telltale sign of a bad case of hives, appeared on his face. He scratched one of them and studied the fluid that oozed from it onto his fingernails. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve guessed he was suffering from a hyper-allergenic reaction—but Superman didn’t have allergy problems, did he? “So visiting hours are over?”
Nurse Namoff straightened the pleats of her dress. “They have been for a while.”
Superman nodded. I half-expected him to open the window and take a flying leap. Indeed, I was looking forward to him shouting, “Up! Up! And away!” but instead he got up and walked. Because he was in costume, he wasn’t wearing shoes, and when he walked, his footed heels slid across the gray tiled floor. “Should I close the door?” he asked.
“Yes,” Nurse Namoff said. “I think you might.”
“I’ll be seeing you,” he said. He waved, unenthusiastically, and then closed the door behind him with as little noise as possible.
Stephen had apparently soiled his diaper and, while Jill remained in bed admiring her roses, Nurse Namoff took it upon herself to give me a diapering tutorial, telling me to place the new diaper beneath Stephen while he was still wearing the old one. With luck, Nurse Namoff said, he’d be potty trained within twelve months. Then she pinched her nose. “Until then, good luck.”
“He looks like you,” Jill said, meaning the baby and me. “Don’t you think?”
I snatched the old diaper out from under him, then folded the new one over his private parts, and only then did I realize that I positioned the diaper backwards.
Stephen didn’t look like me. What she really meant was that he looked like the photographs of my father that she had seen. Because of what happened, I knew better than to ask that we name our child after him. What was amazing was that his union life insurance policy paid the claim after the bus incident. No one was convinced that it was an accident, least of all the wiry bus driver who chewed tobacco and spat out the juices into a Styrofoam coffee cup all during the inquiry. There was no reason for my father to be standing on the street corner at that hour of the morning. He had long ago given up job-hunting; most days, he didn’t wake until well after I left for school. According to the driver, my father timed his stumble into the street perfectly to afford maximum impact and the least chance for survival. That’s how the driver, spitting out more brown juices, described it: “a calculated stumble.” Without that insurance pay-out, I never would have been able to go to college.
Diapering was no easy task. The adhesive tabs at the hip ends of the disposable diapers were supposed to fold over the mid-section of the diaper, securing it onto our baby. Yet somehow I pulled too hard and tore off the tabs, rendering the diaper useless. As I did this, Stephen studied me with what I took to be the superhuman intensity of a future Nobel Prize winner. Hours earlier, when I first held Stephen, I was startled by his magnificent azure eyes, the gaze they cast; there was a power to that gaze that I couldn’t describe, simpatico yet searing. It was like he had the power to look right through me. I didn’t quite know what the Nobel Prize was, but I just knew he had that kind of brute mental force.
Superman visited us twice in the first week that we brought Stephen home. Both times, he stood in the nursery doorway, his hands on either doorjamb as he gazed at Stephen with such concentration that I was sure he was using his x-ray vision. You could tell he desperately wanted to get closer, Superman did, but it was like something was holding him back. Stephen’s neonatal jaundice disappeared, but he developed a bad case of colic—which Jill said was because I wasn’t bottle feeding him right. He had a latching problem, so I’d feed him milk that Jill pumped into bottles. Jill tried to be helpful, saying that I should not hold the bottle at too steep an angle, which prevented him from getting proper tongue traction on the latex nipple. Then she said I held the bottle too close to him. Or I was holding the bottle too tightly. And maybe I wasn’t burping him right either, because, as she said, “burping can be tricky-tricky.”
Some nights there’d be a phone call. Jill would answer because I’d be saddled with Stephen, feeding him. In the moments when Stephen wasn’t crying, I’d hear Jill explain that I couldn’t be interrupted right then. Sometimes the caller would persist—which led me to believe that it was Superman who was calling, for he was nothing if not persistent—and her tone became scathing. When she wanted, she could be downright rude. “Listen, pal, don’t you go bothering him. I tell you he’s daddying.”
Maybe that’s what I was doing—daddying—but it seemed like all I did was upset my son. He looked to be in physical pain. Nothing I did made it better. He’d close his eyes and wail, his nose wrinkling, his skin pinkening, both his hands balled into little fists that he shook wildly. It was hard not to take his frustration personally. His eyes would snap open, taking me in as if he were passing judgment against me.
I meant to return Superman’s calls, but Stephen wouldn’t tucker out until 3 a.m., leaving me with precious few hours to sleep before I had to wake up spry for my office job. We lost touch, Superman and I. When he did catch me, he’d suggest happy hour or a ballgame, things we used to do together. I’d sigh into the phone, thinking of the good old days—how, before the baby, Jill wouldn’t mind if I went out once in a while—but now, with obligations at home, I had to decline his invitations.
“So what do you think about this crime wave we’re having?” Jill asked one night. She passed me two bottles of milk she had just pumped. Her milk always amazed me, how warm it was fresh from her breasts. Through the clear bottles, it had the color of daisy petals. It didn’t seem real.
Since Stephen’s birth, I hadn’t paid attention to the news, but now Jill showed me the Daily Planet newspaper articles. Banks all over town were getting robbed. On consecutive days, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd National Banks went down, the robbers always getting away in a black 1937 Packard. You would think a 75-year-old vehicle would be easy to find in Midtown, but the police were stumped. Criminals were breaking out of jail and solid citizens were turning to a life in crime. Stockbrokers ruthlessly shattered convenience stores’ plate glass windows and ran off with inventories of malt liquor and ridged potato chips. The word was out on the streets: Superman was out of the crime-stopping game. After nabbing Lex Luther, Superman responded to exactly one distress call: a tabby cat had wandered onto the roof of one of the gloriously colored Victorians on Wellsberry Hill and the elderly occupant of that house worried that the cat couldn’t get down without assistance. That much, utilizing an extension ladder, Superman could handle. Nothing in town was working the way it ought. Years of reliance upon Superman had allowed city commissioners to divert resources away from the police force, which now no longer had the manpower or training to combat this wave of wanton stockbrokers.
Curiosity got the better of me. The next time Superman called, I jumped on his invitation to go out. What he wanted to do was go bar-hopping, not to pick up chicks but because of the introspective qualities afforded when languishing on a padded stool in a smoky room as the barkeep tallied up the night’s total in the moments after last call.
“What gives?” I asked when I met up with him.
We were sitting at the oak bar at Delancey’s Lucky Province, the air gray with cigarette smoke in open defiance of the city’s ban on public smoking. Superman stared into his Guinness. A bruise, purple and ringed with a greenish glow, glared luridly on his chin. I had set my cellphone to vibrate, and now it was rattling the small change in my pocket.
“Do you remember, ‘Up Up And Away’?” Superman asked. Because he was widely ridiculed in the media, he no longer pranced about town in his classic blue spandex superhero costume. The Daily Planet ran a front-page editorial featuring his picture under the headline “Dereliction of Duty.” “Wanted” posters were pasted on lampposts. He needed a disguise. That evening he was dressed in a gray flannel suit and a blue-and-gold silk necktie; to my mind, he looked suspiciously like a stockbroker. Women eyed us from the corner booth but, from where he sat, I doubted he could see these cute office workers in smart-cut skirts and bold-colored knit tops. He took off his brown fedora and played with the dent in its crown. Like Superhero costumes, you just don’t see many fedoras nowadays. Whether the girls were appraising us for possible romantic encounters or thinking of phoning in a Superman sighting to the police, I was not sure.
“Those were swell, my Up Up And Away days. So, gee, yesterday I’m sitting on my deck. Police sirens blared in every direction, bursts of gunfire going off. So I figured, wouldn’t it be neat to get back in the game?” He took another sip from his Guinness and set the glass back on its cork coaster. “Up, up and away and all that.”
Suddenly he jumped off the stool and assumed the posture: one arm raised to the sky, knees bent to a semi-crouch, his powerful feet ready to push off. His eyes were glassy, as if he were no longer here in the bar but up in the sky whisking through clouds. Although he said he hadn’t been working out lately, the sight was impressive. He thrust out his chest and shouted, “Up, Up and Away!,” his voice booming.
I thought he was really going to do it: take off flying. All twenty people in the bar, including the deejay setting up his equipment, turned to look. One of the women in the corner booth, the brunette with the dangling star-shaped earrings, raised her cellphone. I couldn’t tell if she was taking his picture or dialing 911. He held that incredible posture for several seconds and gradually I became aware of the silence overtaking the bar, everyone still staring at him, their mouths agape, and my excitement turned into embarrassment for my friend.
“So what happened?” I asked.
“I leapt up maybe five feet. It felt awesome! Is that how they say it nowadays, ‘awesome?’”
“Then I fell down. Whacked my head on the side of the deck.” His fingers traipsed over the bruise on his chin so gingerly that I could tell it still hurt. “That’s how I got this. I leapt up again but it was no better. Something was pulling me down.”
My phone vibrated again in my pants pocket. Jill was trying to track me down but, by my reckoning, I still had an hour maybe less to get home before Stephen’s next feeding.
“I keep thinking of your baby, how I’m letting him down.”
“How are you letting him down?”
“I keep thinking of his face. He’s perfect.”
I hadn’t told Superman about the problems we were having: Jill’s pumping and the baby’s failure to latch properly, the nightly ritual of him throwing tantrums and me unable to soothe him. I was still perpetuating the myth of our baby’s perfection, telling grocery store cashiers and the Asian woman who worked at the dry-cleaners how great he was; anything less would have been a betrayal. The previous night his colic had become so violent that he threw up Jill’s breast milk on me. Twice.
Just before we left the hospital, Nurse Namoff pulled me aside. She already sensed that Stephen might be too much for us to handle. Jill was in a wheelchair, orderlies rolling her toward the elevator. The hospital had this policy that discharged patients could not leave on their own power but had to be given a wheelchair ride to the exit. Something about indemnities. I lingered behind, getting a last look at that cobblestone Kinkade village. Brilliant yellow coronas haloed each street lamp on the poster while snowflakes the size of marbles tumbled through the air. Puffs of smoke issued from the cottage chimneys. “Some babies are more challenging than others,” Nurse Namoff said. I hadn’t expected her to be so frank. All the while I had looked upon her as some kind of hospital automaton, someone who recorded temperatures and dispensed stiff but courteous wisdom. She looked at me as if to gauge whether I understood the severity of her implication. “Listen, it’s your job to support your wife through this.” I nodded. What else could I do, my hands weighted down with a suitcase and our new breast pump?
“I could never have something so perfect,” Superman said. Incredibly, he was choking up.
“You have your daddying. It must be so nifty, isn’t it?”
He looked at me as if I were stupid, gulped the rest of his Guinness, then turned around and glowered at the women. How he knew they gawked at him was beyond me. The brunette’s face crumpled. She let go of her phone, dropping it into a pitcher of pale ale. Another girl at the table, a blonde with wavy hair, plunked down a twenty-dollar bill next to the pitcher while the rest gathered their fabric handbags and jackets, the brunette wrapping a wool scarf around her neck even though the weather outside was mild. Soon they were gone and when he turned his attention back to me, a fiendish pleasure lit his face. He pushed the fedora over his head, crumpling the dent that he had so carefully prepared. “They were mocking me.”
“Don’t you see?”
I had no idea what he was talking about. The phone vibrated again in my pocket. Pretty soon I was going to have to leave. In less than an hour, Stephen was going to throw up on me again. And again.
“Answer your phone, Jack,” Superman said. Somewhere along the way, he had lost the wonder, the charity, in his voice. It had only been a few months since he put away Lex Luther, but already he viewed himself as a has-been. He made a scribbling motion to the bartender. He wanted to get the tab. “At least you have some purpose in life.”
Many years ago, my father took me to a bar. It was my seventeenth birthday and although I was still underage, he wanted to buy me my first beer. Lucky’s Cellar was neither underground or oozing of fortuitous charm. What sunlight that bleared the windows cast a speckled pall over the establishment; it was a place that surely must have looked better at night. This was the first time in months that I had seen my father so animated. Most days, he just sat on the sofa. Out of work then for two years, he ordered a Genesee Cream Ale draught for himself and had the barkeep fetch me a bottle of Molson’s. In Buffalo, Canadian brews were the only imported beers most bars carried. There was the snap of billiard balls ricocheting off each other in the Lucky’s back room. The barkeep scrutinized me, sizing me up, but he wasn’t about to question a man’s word that his son was old enough to drink and soon my father toasted my birthday, clinking my bottle with his glass. The three other guys in the bar snapped to attention. I realize now that, hearing the toast, they were hoping that my father might spot them a round, but at the time I took their sudden interest in my birthday as a sign of respect: for my father, if not for me. There was pride in my father’s voice. Though he could not afford to buy anyone (myself included) another drink, he told everyone that I was going to go to college and “be something more than a laid-off rear axle man.” It seemed like a pipe dream. College cost money. The previous month, we sold the television for grocery money. He declared that I was going to have a purpose in life, but when he said this, what he meant was that this purpose—sending me off to college—had become his purpose. The next morning, he stepped in front of the charging bus.
Superman lowered his head. Outside, another police siren blared, followed by the cry of an ambulance. “Go ahead. Answer it. Tell your wife how lucky you are.”
Nick Kocz’s stories have appeared in Black Warrior Review, The Florida Review, Mid-American Review, Waccamaw, and Web Conjunctions.