After the late night shift, I walked out of the building into the wet street. It had been raining for most of the evening but the drizzle had stopped now and the air felt pleasantly fresh.
Despite the very late hour, I decided to walk the waterfront road to my place.
It was near the littered seashore that I noticed the stooped figure on the bench, his red and blue attire shining in the light from the lamppost.
He was an elderly man who looked distressed but perhaps not destitute, and there was something vaguely familiar about him.
He heard my footsteps before I reached him and got up to leave.
‘No, please wait,’ I whispered. ‘I mean no harm’.
He hesitated, then turning slowly, he looked at me and muttered, ‘I’ve heard that before!’
His eyes were sad, his once handsome face creased by age, and the now grey hairline had receded quite a bit.
The Superman had grown old and tired.
‘Hey, is that really you, Superman?’ My whisper was more of a husk, ‘whatcha doin’ out here?’
Superman did not reply.
‘It’s OK, I’m a friend.’ I reassured him.
‘Yeah?’ The reply was cynically resigned.
The tide was rising. The winds had picked up near the shore.
I folded my arms across my chest, then realized it would be equally chilly for him.
‘Listen, don’t you feel cold out here? Can we go someplace warmer?’
‘Where?’ He was quick to agree.
Superman was lonely too.
‘My place, it’s not far. We can walk.’
‘No. We’ll fly.’ Superman exclaimed proudly, ‘I can still do that, you know.’
I laughed in disbelief, ‘You mean we can actually fly?’
Superman nodded, took hold of my arm in a grip much stronger than I thought possible for his age, and flew into the night sky.
Through the freezing winds, I somehow managed to guide him home. At the doorstep, I pulled back the tie from behind my neck and we looked at each other.
Dishevelled hair, watery eyes, and shivering in cold.
‘Bit different from the movies, you know!’ Superman remarked sheepishly.
Once inside, we appraised one another.
His scrutiny did not bother me as I did not have to worry about assessed against some stereotypical legend — an advantage of anonymity! But for him, it was an entirely different story, and he was acutely mindful that I would be comparing his current state with what he used to be.
Yes, he was still iconic, but just about.
He was still Superman, but just about.
I brewed coffee and put some blues on the player. Superman had a menacing, chronic, old man’s cough.
‘The winters are harder these days. I had hoped for some brandy.’
‘I should have a leftover bottle that a friend had brought’.
‘Really?’ His eyes lit up.
Superman had developed a drinking problem.
Once settled, he asked about my job, and if I lived alone or shared the accommodation.
‘No, I live alone here, but you can stay if you want to.’
A lonely, homeless Superman!! I was numbed by the realization.
‘If you don’t mind my asking, Superman, how old are you?’ It was an honest question.
‘Old enough to know what I’m talking about.’ He apologetically poured himself a large shot.
There was something almost pathetic about it. I could not conceive of a guilty Superman and felt torn between the impulse of buying a bar to satiate him or breaking that bottle to liberate him from alcohol addiction.
‘Sure. I’m listening.’
‘You know, the funny part is, I don’t know where to begin.’ He took a large gulp.
‘Well, what went wrong?’ I encouraged him, and lit up a cigarette.
‘You see, I fought the bad guys to help the good ones. I had a steady job and a nice girl. But the risk of losing it all made sense then as it was for a good cause, and people believed in me. It wasn’t easy, you know, but it was worth it.
‘Time passed, and I was getting old while the bad guys were getting better organized. They were like those darn creatures; cut one in half and you have two in its place.
‘The strain was tremendous, you know... and one fine day I realized that I was the biggest failure of them all. The joke was on me.
‘Have you noticed how unsafe the streets are? You know why? Because nobody believes in Supermen any longer. It doesn’t work anymore.
‘I’m old, and lonely, and forgotten.’ He lowered his head and rubbed his washed out eyes in slow rotating movements.
The cigarette burnt uselessly in the ashtray.
When Superman looked up, the age creases were more prominent.
He didn’t put up a brave face, or maybe it was the smoke from the cigarette. I couldn’t be sure.
I stubbed out the cigarette. In that awkward moment, it gave me something to occupy myself with, then I instinctively lit another one. They say smoking is a displacement activity.
‘It can’t be that bad, Superman,’ I finally found the words, ‘maybe you are simply suffering from depression.’
‘And you know better?’ Superman retorted.
The soundtrack ended. Without background music, there was a pronounced silence.
‘Want different music?’ I asked, more to change the topic.
‘Blues are fine. Goes with the mood, you know.’
I found an older soundtrack, one of my dad’s favorites.
‘This one rings a bell.’ Superman gave me a mischievous smile.
We discussed music, his adventures, and finally, girls.
Superman had some saucy stories to tell.
‘Been peeping around, Superman?’
‘Perks of my trade, you know.’ He winked and poured himself another shot.
Sometime before dawn, we decided to sleep. I brought him a blanket and soon Superman was snoring softly on the couch.
I put the lights out and slumped against the wall on the far corner of the room, watching the figure that had been my childhood hero.
A dazzling figure then, the regretful end that lay on my couch.
His trademark suit, now ill-fitting, that glamorous elegance, lost somewhere in time.
As I walked to my room, my thoughts drifted to my own state of affairs.
I was still young, had a nice girl, a reasonable job but that was pretty much it. There was no meaning, no insight, no depth; a newspaper buffeted by the winds in the empty streets of life.
I drifted off to sleep a very disturbed man.
Pat always knocked on the window on Sunday mornings.
The first thing I felt was the heavy thumping in my head, then my very tired eyes and finally, I woke up to the reality that it was Pat knocking.
Struggling to my feet, I opened the drapes.
The sunlight dazzled me.
‘Hi!’ Pat waved.
I managed to open the window and she climbed in.
‘Ever thought of calling Alcoholics Anonymous?’ She frowned in a manner only she could have perfected.
I dropped back on the bed and mumbled, ‘It’s not me. A guest of mine.’
She left the room and came back with breakfast.
‘I didn’t know your guest stayed the night.’ She commented as she sipped her juice.
‘Ah!’ I remarked at my throbbing headache.
‘Anybody I know?’ She persisted.
‘Yeah, sure. That’s Superman.’ I grunted.
‘Oh.’ She commented matter-of-factly.
‘Is he still asleep?’ I asked.
‘Superman, who.’ I replied.
She gave me her menacing, smartass look.
‘I have got to go. Mind clearing the dishes?’ She got up after we had nibbled through the breakfast.
‘What time are you coming back?’
‘Later.’ She stated, and climbed out the window.
When I went to clean up the dishes, Superman was still sleeping.
After a shower, I prepared breakfast for him and woke him up. He opened his eyes on the second call and hastily got up. A bit confused with the surroundings, he didn’t know how he got there.
‘It’s alright, Superman, it’s me.’ I assured him.
‘Oh, yes. I guess it’s the drinks.’
‘Here, try some juice.’ I handed him a glass.
During breakfast, Superman acknowledged, ‘Thanks for last night, and I am sorry for all the trouble.’
‘No trouble at all, Superman.’
He nodded gratefully.
‘We might have company for lunch.’ I thought it only fair to let him know. ‘Well, in that case, I should be leaving.’
It was more of an inquiry than a statement.
‘No, I would like you to meet her. Pat’s my fiancé.’
‘I can’t go in front of her you know.’
‘But she has seen you. She was here earlier.’
‘Hell, no! Did you tell her who I was?’
‘Well yes, I did. But she seemed unconvinced.’ I confessed apologetically.
It hurt his pride, ‘I told you nobody believes in me anymore.’
I didn’t argue. I collected the plates.
For lunch, Pat used the door.
‘Hi.’ She smiled.
Superman got up to meet her. I noticed Pat’s eyes widen when she saw his attire, but she managed to smile at him.
They greeted each other but I felt a fleeting sadness to see Superman acutely conscious of himself again.
As I went into the kitchen, Pat followed me.
‘Who’s that freak?’ She wrinkled her nose.
‘I know it’s hard for you to believe, but he’s really THE Superman.’
She glared at me, then shrugged, ‘OK!’
‘No honestly, he actually flew me home last night!’
Her burning eyes said it all.
Somehow I felt more offended at her rejection of the man’s very existence, rather than her criticism on him.
‘Wait, I’ll prove it to you.’ I walked into the hallway and called out, ‘Superman, Pat thinks you aren’t Superman, maybe you’d like to educate her?’
Pat gave Superman a resigned smile, ‘Sure, prove it.’
The Superman looked around, saw the large refrigerator and looked at both of us again to make sure we weren’t taking him for a ride.
He carefully pulled the electric cable off, bent over and raised the machine in an easy, graceful motion.
It was only then that we both realized he was going to collide it with the ceiling, but it was too late.
Superman would have held it but the door flung open.
With a huge crash, everything came down.
When the noise subsided, Pat squirmed out from under my protecting body and we got up gingerly.
‘Oh, what a mess!’ He commented, and we all laughed out in sheer relief.
Pat volunteered to go out and get lunch if I called the janitors over.
Superman locked himself in my room when the cleaners came in. They looked in amazement at the kitchen. One of them blew a long whistle. The second one exclaimed ‘…And I thought my wife was messy!’
‘Mind telling us how you managed to do this?’ The first one asked.
‘Mind minding your business.’ I retorted.
They shook their heads in disbelief and began cleaning.
Pat brought the food, and as the men were still working, we had a chance to talk in the living room.
‘I know he’s a strong old man but you can’t let him do these things.’ She still didn’t believe him to be Superman.
‘Yeah, I know.’ There was no point in convincing her.
‘How long does he plan to stay?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Doesn’t he have a place to stay?’
‘I don’t know!’
‘So what are you going to do with him?’ She was getting agitated.
‘I don’t know, Pat!!’ I got exasperated.
‘My God! How can you be so dumb? You can’t keep him here! I doubt your ability to take care of your self, let alone look after him?’
‘Pat, I really don’t know.’
We took our lunch with Superman.
Pat did a remarkable job of not showing her strain in front of him. She even called him ‘dear’ a couple of times.
Knowing her, I knew a storm was brewing.
After lunch, she sweetly asked if I would walk her home, provided Superman didn’t mind, of course.
‘I think I have a workable solution.’ She said as we walked.
I raised my brows.
‘I think I can arrange for him to be admitted to a Senior Citizen’s Centre.’ She continued.
‘What!’ I felt suddenly outraged. ‘He can’t go there. Don’t you realize, I can’t do that to him!’
‘Why not? He has nobody, and they’d take care of him there. At least he’d be more comfortable than sleeping on that couch!’
‘But he’s...he’s been Superman...’ I fought back lamely.
‘They’ve all been supermen, my dear.’ She replied sympathetically.
He looked at me then lowered his gaze. ‘I guess I should thank you.’
‘No, please! No forget it.’ I lowered my eyes too.
Pat drifted away to give us some privacy.
‘I suppose it had to happen someday. Hell, I had my fun, you know.’
‘Listen, Superman. If there’s anything you need, I mean...’
‘No, but thank you.’
I finally found the courage to look at him. His gaunt body now clad in a better fitting suit.
‘So long, Superman.’ I bit my lip.
‘Yeah, so long, my friend.’ He took a deep breath and nodded.
As he turned, his washed-out blue eyes looked at the towering building behind him and then towards the skies he had valiantly flown in the years gone by.
Finally, taking slow, delicate steps, he walked towards a group of men basking in the sun.
Pat came over to me. She pressed my hand into hers.
When we had almost reached the car, she asked, ‘Who really was that man?’
‘Just another Superman.’ I mumbled.