by Martin Maenza
Just then, the front bell rang again as the wooden door opened inward. In shuffled a man, probably in his late fifties, with hunched shoulders and dressed in dirty, wrinkled, and worn dark clothes. His face was unshaven, his eyes dark and sunken. If he looked as if he had been living off the street, it was because he did.
Hero Cruz greeted him with a smile, nonetheless. “Smitty,” he said. “How you doing today?”
“Good, good,” the man said in a grumbled tone. “I got somethin’ here. Found it just this morning. Thought you guys might be able to sell it.” He fished through his deep pockets and then emerged with something. With shaky hands, he placed it on the counter for Randy Kilmer to see.
The red-haired man glanced down from his morning doughnut. The item was round and made of metal. He poked at the thing with his finger, giving it a very quick and dismissive once-over. “What’d you do, Smitty? Take that off some broken-down pay phone or something?”
“No,” the older man said, shaking his head. “I found it. Down by the inlet. I was walkin’ along, looking for stuff, and saw something shiny in this shallow pool of water. I fished it out, and there you go.”
“By the inlet, huh?” Hero said, picking up the item to examine it.
“It’s just junk,” Randy said. “It’s probably part of something else, but by itself it’s pretty worthless.”
Smitty looked dejected. “Sorry it’s not as good as some stuff I bring in,” he said. “I wasn’t gonna ask much for it.”
“Sometimes you score, and sometimes you don’t,” Randy said.
Hero looked at the old man. “Say, Smitty,” he said. “If Randy doesn’t want it, I’ll take it off your hands. How’s three bucks sound to you?”
The old man’s eyes lit up. “Three? Really?”
“Sure,” the black youth said. “Why not?” He reached into his jeans’ pocket and dug around. He felt a bit of change, but no bills. After a moment, he motioned to Smitty. “One sec.” He popped behind the counter and pressed no sale on the old-time register. The drawer opened with a ting of a bell.
“Hey!” Randy exclaimed. “What’re you doing?”
Hero looked at his boss. “Just call it an advance until Friday, OK?” He pulled three bills from the drawer and handed them to the bum. “There you go, Smitty. Three for the bauble. Deal?”
“Deal!” Smitty replied, eagerly snatching the money and tucking it safely into the pocket of his worn jacket. “Bless you, young man. Bless you.” He rushed out of the shop happily.
“You know,” Randy started to say, “he’s just gonna go blow it on a couple bottles of Mad Dog.”
Hero shrugged his shoulders and moved away from the counter.
“You and your bleeding heart,” Randy said. “No doubt you pick up stray cats on the street, too. And while I’m at it, what’s with needing an advance? Mommy and Daddy cut you off again?”
The young black man shook his head. “Right, ha-ha-ha,” he said with a mocking fake laugh. “No, nothing like that.” He continued to eye the object. “They’re still covering my tuition and board and stuff.”
“Yeah? Then why you working here, H.C., if you got better things to do and a trust fund waiting for ya?”
Hero smirked at Randy. “Some days I wonder that, too,” he said. “It certainly can’t be for your pretty face and sparkling conversation.”
Randy appreciated the sarcastic comment. Hero was a good kid — nice to the customers, had a good eye for things, and was always on time. He appreciated that, because good help was hard to find and keep. Still, he wasn’t about to tell the young man that. The next thing you knew, Hero would want a raise.
Leaning over the counter, Randy said, “So, what you gonna do with that piece of junk?”
“I don’t know,” the young man said. “Maybe put it on a chain, hang it about my neck or something.”
“Really? Who you think you are? Darryl McDaniels or Joseph Simmons?”
Hero was taken aback. He threw his hand against his chest. “Oh, be still my heart,” he said with some dramatic flair. “Since when does the uncultured swine know about Run-D.M.C.?“
“Hey, I’ve got R-TV!” Randy said in his own defense.
“Whatever,” Hero said with a smile. He moved to the back of the store and put the item into the zippered pocket of his windbreaker jacket. The time for messing around with it, whatever it was, would have to wait until later.
The deadbolt unlatched, and Hero Cruz walked into his third-story apartment. His arms were full with two large paper bags of groceries, so he used one of his feet to push the door closed behind him. The sound of a meow, meow greeted him, accompanied by a feline body rubbing against his lower leg.
Hero put the bags down on the kitchen counter and flipped on the light above the range. A gray cat with dark eyes was circling at his feet. “Hey, there, Sampson,” he said, bending down to pet the animal. “How you doing?”
The cat meowed a response to his voice.
Hero shook his head. “How is it that you know when I buy milk?” he asked. “You got some kind of super-senses or something?” He started to put the groceries away in the refrigerator and cupboards. The cat continued to get under his feet. “OK, OK, I’ll feed you in a minute.”
Something pounced onto the kitchen counter.
Hero turned around to see a black cat, slightly smaller, with green eyes. The animal looked at him intently.
“What, you, too, Aristotle?” he asked. “You two act like I’ve been gone for weeks.” He reached into the top cupboard and pulled out a small bag. Moving around to the other side of the counter, he poured the dry food into two bowls that sat on plastic mats on the gray-carpeted floor. The two cats pushed their way into their usual spots.
Hero stepped back. “You could have waited for me to get out of the way. Sheesh.” He put the food back in its storage spot, finished with the rest of the items, then folded up the two bags. He walked past the two animals. “Don’t mind me, fellas. I picked up a burger at Scotty’s on the way home.”
Stepping into the bedroom in the pack, he slipped off his jacket and tossed it toward the bed. It flew down onto the mattress with a slight bounce. “Oh, yeah,” Hero said absently. He retrieved the jacket and fished the item out of the pocket. “Almost forgot about my purchase.”
Hero sat down on the bed and eyed the item. This was the first time he noticed the markings on the surface under the dial, ten in total with one each under opening. “Hmmm,” he said. “I wonder what those characters are.” He had seen hieroglyphics at the Museum of History last year when the Egyptian exhibit had been in town. The markings reminded him of them, but they weren’t anywhere near the same. “I wonder what they represent.”
Placing his fingers in one of the holes, he dialed it around. Removing his finger, the top ring recoiled back in place. “Just like a phone dial,” he said softly. “Maybe Randy was right about this.” He did the same thing again with another one of the holes.
“Ah, well,” he said, placing the item on the night stand next to his bed. “I guess it makes for an interesting paperweight or something.” A yawn came up on him; Hero stretched his arms out. It had been a long day, and he’d been up early. He kicked off his sneakers, settled down back on the two-high pile of pillows, and shut his eyes.
After a few moments, he was asleep.
The sound permeated the black youth’s head.
“Huh?” he muttered, his eyes still closed. Hero rolled over, pulling the light blanket about his body.
It was like a whisper in the wind. It seemed to grow louder each time.
The black youth bolted upright, as if he had been splashed in the face with ice-cold water. “What? What?“
He shook his head, slightly disoriented. He was in his room in his apartment. Sampson was asleep on the foot of the bed, purring softly. Aristotle was lying on a pile of laundry on the floor in the corner near the door. His eyes glowed in the darkness as he stared at his owner.
“Aris, I think next time I’ll lay off the double onions on my burger,” Hero said to the cat. “I swear I thought I heard someone calling…”
“…my name?” Hero’s eyes grew wide. The cat stared at the black youth curiously. Hero rose from the bed, moving cautiously as if something wasn’t right. “OK, so maybe I’m dreaming.” He turned to the nightstand as if some unseen force was drawing him. He reached out and felt an odd pull. “What in the…?”
Putting his hand on the item he bought from Smitty, Hero felt an odd sensation, almost one that calmed his nerves. With his other hand, he pushed the switch on the lamp. The light filled the room. It took a second for his eyes to adjust; Aristotle turned away.
Hero shifted the object to his left hand. “No way this thing was calling to me,” he said, trying to convince himself, but his tone betrayed his gut instinct. “Was it?”
He looked at the dial again and at the markings. How he saw them seemed to shift, as if the lines were moving about before his eyes and readjusting them. They started to make sense. He could actually make them out now, as if they were the standard alphabet that made up the English language.
“This is crazy!”
He saw letters that made up his name. He dialed them, one by one.
H… E… R… O…
The room was filled with a blinding flash of light.
Aristotle ran from the room. Sampson woke from his sleep and stared in a feline disbelief.
A muscular black man with a large afro hairdo, dressed in a formfitting costume of purple with a cape in a darker shade, rocketed through the predawn sky around Seattle. A couple of pigeons perched atop a flagpole were spooked by the flying figure and balked.
The black man smiled a great big smile. “Yeah, baby! How you like me now?“
The feeling was exhilarating, unlike anything the man had ever felt before. He was a changed man, and it was all due to the round object that currently was apart of the ornate belt about his waist. “If this is a dream, don’t nobody wake me until it’s over!”
The flight of fancy was interrupted by the sound of gunshots and sirens in the distance. The man in purple, who instantly nicknamed himself the Purple Powerhouse, arched his body to the right and made a ninety-degree turn in mid-flight.
A brown 1984 Chevy, its paint scratched in a few spots and with one tail light burned out, raced down Twenty-Third Avenue with two black and whites chasing behind, their red lights whirling and sirens blaring. One of the men in the Chevy pulled his upper body back into the window of the passenger seat. “Step on, Ben!” he yelled to the driver.
“I’ve got this mother floored!” the man behind the wheel replied. “Can’t you shoot out their tires or somethin’?”
“I’m trying! I’m trying!”
“Well, stop buggin’ me and do it!” the driver snapped.
Suddenly, there was a slight tapping on the window. Ben, keeping his hands firm on the wheel, glanced over. A flying black man in purple stared back at him, moving along the side of the car as it traveled at its top speed. “Aaa-aaa-aah!” Ben yelled.
The door ripped off its hinges as the car continued to pull away.
The costumed black man hovered briefly in the air, holding the metal remains of the door in his hands by the handle. “Hmmm,” he said, “guess that wasn’t such a smart idea. American-made isn’t what it used to be.” The police cars whizzed past him. The Purple Powerhouse tossed the door aside to the edge of the street and darted after the escaping vehicle.
“Ben, where the hell’s the door?” asked the shocked gunman.
“Some flying bastard ripped it off!” the quite-shaken Ben said. He cut the steering wheel sharp to the left and took the corner on two wheels.
His partner slammed into passenger side door. “Ripped it off? Holy sh–!” The gunman had glanced forward, and what he saw took his breath away. “Look out!”
Ben saw it, too. In the twin beams of the Chevy’s headlights was the well-built black man in the purple costume. The Purple Powerhouse stood defiantly in the center of the road, right in the path of the onrushing car. Ben’s face grew beet red, and he gripped the steering wheel even tighter. “Ruin my ride, will you?” The car headed directly at the man in the street.
The costumed black man eyed the approaching threat with little concern. “Here goes nothing.” The Powerhouse cocked back his right fist, held it for a three-count, and then brought it forward fast. The purple-gloved hand connected with the hood of the car, punched clean through it, and connected with the engine block underneath. Simultaneously, he took a step to the side.
With its engine disengaged and falling out the bottom of the car, the Chevy careened out of power to a stop a few hundred feet away. The police cars pulled up on each side to apprehend the men. With no way to run and the possibility of being shot by the officers, the two men surrendered.
One of the police officers turned to the black man. “Hey, you!” he called out. “Who are you?”
“Hero,” the Purple Powerhouse said without thinking.
“What?” the officer asked, not quite sure he heard right.
“Just a hero,” the black man said with a smile. He then flew off into the night sky.
The next morning, at Relics and Remembrances, Randy Kilmer was just unlocking the door when Hero Cruz approached from down the street. “Looks like I beat you in for once,” the red-haired man said.
“Yeah,” Hero said, yawning. “Guess you did.”
Randy flipped on the light and headed for the counter. “Man, you look beat. You have a late night or something, H.C.?”
“Yeah,” the black man said, smiling slightly. He gently patted the front pocket of his jeans where he put the special dial for safekeeping. “Something like that.”