Tonight’s the night.
It’s just me and George on the bus. We share the bottle. A celebration. To families reunited, we say. About damn time too, Frankie. He pulls up to the stop. Summit Lane, Frankie, now get on home. Even offers me the bottle.
One hundred forty-seven and one half steps from the intersection. Eight houses down.
The neighborhood hasn’t changed a day. There’s Mr. Zigetti – Spaghetti’s lawn, perfect as always. I love hearing his stories. There’s Cookie’s doghouse. There’s Brett’s ball in the front lawn, still scuffed from bouncing off a tree one too many times. Sammy used to sit in the window and watch Brett kick that ball around, same time every day. 2:15PM. I told him to go out and play. He came back at 2:20 with a scraped knee. He wanted a bandage, one of those with magic healing powers, a magic bandage.
I stand in front of the red door, the one that made us fall in love with the place, our first home. The front porch hasn’t changed a bit. I still need to repaint it. Always said I would.
Our special knock is the rhythm of our first dance. I can’t remember the name of the tune, but I remember the way we let it move us, that rhythm, that beat.
I knock on the red door.
Tonight’s the night.
Tonight has to be the night.
Frank dismantles his workstation, a ramshackle concoction of a barrel, twelve bricks and a piece of wood measuring 36.52 by 36.52 inches, with military precision. The board, filled with gouges and gashes from the infamous –– and long since departed (for Cleveland) –– knife thrower Pagliacci the Magnificent, is the first thing on the cart. The bricks hold the board fast, protecting Frank’s treasure. It makes for a great story to tell the moppets who line up at the beck and call of his sign:
JUST $2 TO BECOME A REAL HERO… BY THE CREATOR OF THE SKY PHANTOM!!!!!
Frank taps his foot to the music emanating from Sal. Dried ink globules cover the speaker screen and form a crust around Sal’s leprous dials. He and Sal talk, but only when Sal has something interesting to say.
He knocks over his tin can, the empty one, the one that says, “For feats of pure wonder, a mere trifle of your take-home plunder.” Not what you might call pretty, but Pagliacci had a showman’s ear for do-it-yourself singsong hyperbole that Frank didn’t.
The music stops. Three beeps.
–– WE INTERRUPT THIS BROADCAST TO BRING YOU A SPECIAL NEWS BULLETIN: CHILDREN ALL OVER THE COUNTRY ARE REELING FROM A CHRISTMAS DISASTER AS THEIR HERO, “THE SENTINEL,” SEEMINGLY PERISHED MIDWAY THROUGH TODAY’S EPISODE OF “THE ADVENTURES OF THE SENTINEL.” THE SHOW’S SPONSOR, KLEIN POWS CEREAL, IMMEDIATELY STOPPED THE BROADCAST. THEY HAVE YET TO COMMENT. MORE AT THE TOP OF THE HOUR. WE RETURN YOU NOW TO THE BEAUTIFUL VOCALS OF MARIE —
Frank smacks Sal on the head. The swing sounds return. Shine On. One of Sal’s dials, the one that only has three-fifths of its diameter encased in inky glue, pops off. Something’s not right in Sal’s electrical innards.
The Comic Book (capital C, capital B) –– Whiz!Bam!Pow! Comics Number Seven, August 1938 –– drops from his jacket to the boardwalk. He wipes the snow from Its brittle cover, his cover, his work: The Sky Phantom strafing a monstrous robot dinosaur, machine guns blasting enemy planes to smithereens under bold yellow and blue lettering: Whiz!Bam!Pow! Comics. Their Comic. His Comic. Sammy’s Comic: a thing of beauty, a world of aviating wonder, a world of real heroes lit by strobes. Sammy’ll love It. He’ll see what his dad made.
He glares at the corner. That corner. The one with that masked marvel bursting out of chains: “AND INTRODUCING ‘THE SENTINEL!’” The corner that “captured their imaginations,” Sal always said. Their hero. Their icon.
He hears her excited whispers before he sees her: an infectious smile bubbling over like the red curls cascading from her head. She plays with the gleaming silver chain draped around her neck, her other arm wrapped through the boy’s. The boy buries his hands in his pockets. Nice jacket. But not now, not tonight.
–– Oh, I love this song! This should be our song!
Curls grips Jacket tight. She twists the necklace around her finger. Sal sings a sweet song.
–– I’m closed.
–– Please Mister? It’s our first date.
He turns the pages of The Comic. For supreme bravery in the face of grave danger, the United States awards you, Airman First Class Lyle Davis, the Bronze Star! That was a good day. He met Alice that day. He remembers it in grey and olive grit, not in the four-color primary explosion of the wilting pages of The Comic, but he remembers it: a day when real heroes flew in feats of engineering marvel and fought for the freedom of the world, a day when kids wanted to be those real heroes, the ones that didn’t wear a mask and take away the lives and loves of good, hard-working men.
–– It’s just that, well that Gene would get a kick out of it, wouldn’t he James? And it is our first date. How many of those do you get? He would enjoy it. He would. We would. And it won’t take you long. Sky Phantom was always his favorite. At least that’s what he said. He said a lot of things. Like he was going to fix that sign. Says “Ene’s Iner,” can you believe it? Said it since I started there.
Frank looks into the empty tin can of plunder for wonder –– no plunder, little wonder. He rolls up The Comic. Curls clutches Jacket’s arm. Frank rubs his hands together. He blows into them. He claps.
–– First date, huh? Well then, we’d better immortalize this moment! And if this tune ends up being your wedding song, you’d better give me some credit! I can already see you, young lady, flying into enemy territory in your C-47, a Winged Angel swooping in to save this fine young man, this brave exemplar of humanity!
Sal skips again. Frank hits him. His hand throbs. Another sweet song. Curls giggles. She reaches into her pockets and pulls out two dollars, wadded and crumpled. She drops them into the plunder for wonder can, an aroma of borscht, grease and money rising from the bottom. They sit on the wooden box opposite Frank. He rests Pagliacci’s target back in its place of prominence. He affixes a jagged sheet of paper to the board with a bent nail. Curls grins. Her smile glows. She bounces her feet on the ground. Spring-loaded. She squeezes Jacket’s arm and rests her head on his shoulder. Jacket stares at the sign.
–– Alright lovebirds, you ready to be real heroes? You ready to save the world from those no-goodnik Krauts?
Curls goes serious. Proud. Tall. She puts her fists on her hips, ready to take on the world and save it from the nefarious machinations of the next Axis threat. She holds her breath. Jacket stares at the sign.
–– There’s that hero!
She exhales. Her battle-ready veneer of pride and honor plummets into a giggle factory. Rosie the Riveter of Laughter. She squeezes Jacket’s arm. Frank draws the first line: the small, open triangle of her chin. He leaves space for the red curls. They’ll pop.
–– You know, this board was once the target of Pagliacci the Magnificent.
Curls looks up from Jacket’s shoulder.
–– Who’s that, Mister?
–– Best knife thrower there ever was. Bet he didn’t use a fancy one like that brave young man of yours right there.
Jacket touches his pocket.
–– But that Pagliacci, he hit it every time. Every time, I tell ya. It was amazing. You’re being drawn on top of history, young lady. Just look at that accuracy.
Frank lifts the board and shows off the gouges, dead center.
–– Wow, Mister. I don’t think I could ever do that.
–– You never know, young lady. I’ll bet you could damn near do just about anything.
Frank sketches Jacket staring into the clouds.
–– Sky Phantom huh?
Frank smiles. Two of the three words Jacket has uttered are his favorites. Curls giggles. Sal sings static. Frank smacks him.
–– You should get a new one of those. My dad worked on those things. Said that kind was a bitch.
–– Your dad sounds like a smart guy, young lady. But I’d never get rid of old Sal here.
–– Who’s Sal?
Frank draws the lines of Jacket’s wavy black hair. A strong jaw.
–– And you, young man, you’re going to be the daring fighter pilot, her lucky love, the one who fills her heart with
–– How ‘bout The Sentinel? I want you to draw me as The Sentinel.
Sal sings static.
To be continued.