Grief! Good God, the power of grief! Of witnessing the death of a trusted friend, a childhood mentor!
I'd heard about his murder, sure, back in 2005. Lots of people had. But only then, in the chilled silence of a bookstore, could I handle reading the gory details of his death.
A bullet through the skull, the trigger pulled by a trusted friend. The body incinerated in secret by the assassin's goons. I felt my legs starting to give out beneath me; I planted an arm into a shelf. My throat muscles constricted. I thought for a moment I was going to cry.
And then, suddenly, I was no longer alone.
"The OMAC Project is stellar. Kinda Sad, huh?"
I turned around to see this young woman, Middle-Eastern features with purple lipstick and a nose ring, staring at me with these sad eyes.
She understood. Everybody understands when an icon, fictional or real, dies.
"Oh. Yeah. It's taken me this long to get around to reading about it...Blue Beetle was a favorite of mine..."
I explained, rambled actually, about how I'd grown up reading many of the characters involved, how I wasn't really a comic fanboy type, that it was my birthday, I'd taken the day off from work, and I was just in the bookstore browsing when I saw a copy of The OMAC Project staring at me...
She laughed. And suddenly, I felt awkward, a total imbecilic spaz, as if I'd just told this complete stranger that I lived in my parents' basement and collected fucking Star Wars figurines.
Pretty girls, particularly those who obviously know more about the modern state of comic books than I do, make me nervous. I regained my composure, cleared my throat.
The Silver Age Blue Beetle was one of my favorites growing up, mainly through his short-lived 1980s solo series and the old Justice League International series. Hell, I never wanted to be Bruce Wayne or Batman when I was a kid -- too damned depressing. Superman? Please. The world's full of too many friggin' Boy Scouts. But billionaire IT company CEO and genius inventor Ted Kord, with his nonlethal BB Gun and his flying ship shaped like - you guessed it - a giant blue beetle? Now, that guy had a sense of humor, a flair for sarcasm and nonchalance and sheer love of being, well, a superhero.
And the writers and artists killed him off. One of my childhood heroes. Murdered in cold blood for the sake of plot development.
"So you're a Justice League fan? Oh my God... you HAVE to read this if you are..."
She reaches over my shoulder and pulls down a trade paperback copy of Identity Crisis, Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales' modern opus, one of the most controversial miniseries in comic history. In its pages one superhero's wife is raped and then murdered, another superhero's ex-wife goes crazy, and yet another person near-and-dear to the ol' Dark Knight 's heart loses his father in one of the most gut-twisting series of panels I've ever seen.
I would be buying that graphic novel, too, I explained. I was grateful when it turned out that she wasn't a nosy salesclerk, wasn't trying to get me to hurry up and buy something...
"So you're spending your birthday buying graphic novels?"
I started to come up with some sort of rational explanation. Yes, after my morning fishing trip had been abruptly canceled, I was indeed shopping for graphic novels on my Thirtieth birthday. But I wasn't... I wouldn't...
"That's so COOL!"
And we ended up talking for a good hour after I bought, yes, a few graphic novels as a birthday gift to myself, sharing a cup of joe at the chain coffee shop next door, discussing why, exactly, the Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, and obscure comic book characters sometimes change one's perception of life to the point where real people grieve when those superheroes die on paper.
She even held my hand as I explained how I was about ready to cry when she'd walked up behind me. She said that was the sweetest thing her 18-year-old ears had ever heard come out of a 30-year-old guy's mouth.
Hey, she was just easing my pain. Really. Seriously. I mean, c'mon... what 18-year-old girl would, well, hit on...
There are worse ways, I guess, to turn the Big Three-Oh. I mean, how many guys get the phone numbers of recent high school graduates slipped to them because they're old enough to remember The Crisis of Infinite Earths miniseries and the day Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash, died?
* * * *
HAMILTON, Ohio (ZP) -- He says that he's the Nobody Man, that the drugs had done him in and his brains were gone, that he wasn't much of a man without his beer first thing in the morning.
He has a name, he says, somewhere lost in his past. He prefers to cook up new names when strangers pass by, interesting and peculiar names, in the hope that some poor schmuck will hook him up with some drinking money.
Downtown. South Monument Avenue. Beneath the afternoon shadow of Billy Yank, German immigrant Rudolph Thiem's gorgeous sculpture, bronzed and perfect atop the Butler County Soldiers, Sailors and Pioneers Monument Building.
And I give a fresh ten-dollar bill to a Nobody Man, one of the drug-zombified, one of its marginally homeless, one of the City of Sculpture's lost causes. Thiem's sculpture represents the victory of the Union over the separatist southern Confederacy of the 19th century. Nobody Man's face alone could serve as a scarred monument to a nation's failures.
He grew up in the city, this Nobody Man. His grandmother, he claimed, worked in one of the city's legendary, forgotten brothels, back when men like John Dillinger hid out in plain sight in the city's streets, back when the Mob Bosses of Big Chicago turned Hamilton, Ohio, into Little Chicago.
He'd been a soldier once, a factory worker, an inmate, a steelworker, and, always, a drunk. And sometime in the 1990s he found religion in the form of methamphetamine, that marvel of home-cooked, trailer park chemistry. After doing a bit of time in County for, well, being a junkie who never figured out how to dodge possession charges or child support payments, he went clean...
... And he's been on the streets ever since. He shows me his arms. The scabs are gone. And so is, sadly, most of his mind.
He can't hold a job because, well, he hears voices of angels, demons, and biblical characters. He keeps getting evicted from flophouses because, well, he's still substituting the cheap booze for prescription meds he can't afford.
I gave him the ten-spot because he looked like he could use it. I gave him the rest of my pack of cigarettes because he'd asked for one or two, had offered to give me the money back for just a smoke.
Giving isn't about the recipient's intended use. It's something humans do as an unspoken bond, almost as a form of communication. It's how we let people know, without words, that they still mean something, even if the world says that they don't.
Strolling back towards my pickup, a concerned woman, mid-thirties, walks up beside me as I'm waiting for on crosswalk signal. She'd apparently been watching my conversation and exchange with the Nobody Man from afar. And she wanted to voice her unsolicited opinions, too.
"...Honey, that crackhead's gonna just blow that money..."
"...You just threw your money away on a black..."
"...You gotta be careful with those NEE-ggers. They'll rob you around here..."
It's a free country. Everybody has a right to express their opinions. So I expressed a few of my own.
"So tell me, lady: why didn't your mama do the world a favor and just scrape your fetus outta her with a rusty coat hanger?"
If I have to hear somebody else's racist rant, well, I have just as much right to tell that person that I question their very existence, their value in society.
God bless the First Fucking Amendment. And at least ten bucks and a pack of cigarettes made some poor guy's day.
Yeah, it's an evil, barbaric, crude world, lady.
* * * *
LIBERTY, Ind. (ZP) -- Facial hairstyles would not be what they are today if it weren't for the former U.S. Civil War commander who was born here, in this sleepy little Hoosier town.
Former U.S. Gen. Ambrose Everett Burnside, commander, Army of the Potomac, November 1862 to March 1863. First president of the National Rifle Association. Jilted ex-lover of Confederate spy (and Oxford Fucking Ohio native) Lottie Moon. Gunsmith and inventor of the Burnside Carbine rifle. Governor and Senator of Rhode Island...
Fascinating guy, really.
Like I said. Unless you're a U.S. Civil War buff, or, well, have a peculiar interest in really shitty war strategists from that time period, you probably could care less.
Now take a look at that last name again: Burnside. If you flip the syllables, you get the word sideburn. There have been many names for the ol' hairy cheeks look over the centuries, but, now, the English-speaking World over, everybody knows sideburns when they see them.
Elvis. Evel Knievel. Luke Perry. The Beatles. Isaac Asimov. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson...
... And, well, pretty much every schlocky lounge lizard, biker, and disco performer of the last fifty years or so...
It all starts here, baby. Liberty Friggin' Indiana.
"Hey Jason... When you gonna write a Union County thing? We're only a few minutes away, man!" She asked in her email. "We're interesting."
As I stare at the long-dead, long-forgotten general's name on a memorial plaque in front of the Union County Courthouse, smack dab in the middle of a tiny Midwestern town square, I start laughing to myself, almost hysterically, as I instinctively reach up with both hands to feel my own tiny sideburns.
An old man and his wife are sitting on a bench nearby. The old man laughs, hollers my way.
"We gave the world sideburns. And we're damn proud of it."
Liberty Friggin' Indiana.
Well, I'll be damned...
It all starts here, baby. Middle of nowhere in particular.
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