The Friday Afternoon Serial Proudly Presents: Subhuman: Volume One, Chapter Nine

(Welcome to week nine of the Friday Afternoon Serial. If you haven’t  had an opportunity to read Chapters 1-8, we highly recommend doing so before delving forward into Chapter Nine. Otherwise, enjoy. Pass it on. After the jump, it’s time for a confession.) 

 

 

 

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Chapter Nine


Saturday, April 12th. Church of the Holy Redeemer. Rosemont, Pennsylvania.

Today, my daughter Sara celebrates her first Confession, or Reconciliation, as the local parishioners now call it. The term “confession” implies wrongdoing, and – as such – the congregation has decided it simply does not apply to Main Line Catholics.

Catholics with six-to-eight figure incomes are generally exempt from confession.

It’s true. They buy their salvation one collection envelope at a time.

*

The Church of the Holy Redeemer is wide and modern and cavernous, shaped like a giant pinwheel with five equal sections funneling down toward the altar. The structure is supported throughout by marble columns and medieval buttresses. Single-bulb skylights dangle from dropped ceilings like stalagmites.

I am sitting alone in one of the church’s rear pews – feet propped up on the kneeler, elbows akimbo, knees brushing up against the backrest in front of me.

I’m in roughly the same position I would be if I were riding a Big Wheel.

Church pews, by and large, are not designed with ergonomics in mind.

Make a note of it.

*

The midday sun is shining in through beveled windows along the east side of the church, casting a stained-glass glow upon everything in their path.

There’s an eerie purple glare coming off the head of a bald man sitting two rows in front of me. He – along with most of the other males in the congregation – is wearing a solid black suit and tie over a white-button down shirt. I am wearing a gray sports coat over a solid black t-shirt, jeans and a pair of black leather boots.

I stand out for all the wrong reasons.

But God doesn’t really give a damn, and neither will my daughter.

So far as I’m concerned, the black tie brigade can eat a … host.

*

I do not believe in confession, at least not in the traditional Roman Catholic sense.

I do not believe in a sacrament during which guilt-ridden sinners are made to sit in a dark closet and spill their guts to an anonymous man on the other side of the wall, who may or may not have his own penis in his hand. It’s unsettling, quite frankly. And it leaves me feeling more creeped out than cleansed.

That’s really all I have to say about that.

*

The Church of the Holy Redeemer is teeming with family and friends and relatives, all of whom are eager to recognize this year’s class of prepubescent sinners.

Laura and Miggs are sitting several pews in front of me, Tommy tucked snuggly between the two of them. Miggs has his arm draped over the back of the pew. He’s running his index finger along Laura’s shoulder.

This is exactly why I chose to arrive at the church last-minute, I think to myself.

It seemed like the best way to avoid any awkward conversation about whether the four of us should sit together (We should not, for the record). I still have no inkling whether Laura has informed Miggs that his bastard father has agreed to represent me in the divorce proceedings.

Laura hasn’t spoken to me in weeks – ever since I forwarded Nathaniel’s contact information to Rabbi Arnie Fischel, along with strict instructions that Laura’s legal team deal directly with Nathaniel moving forward. This, of course, infuriated Laura, who assumed I wouldn’t have the ambition, nor the audacity, to hire a fancy 5th Avenue lawyer.

Laura Lee, it would seem, assumed wrong.

*

Miggs has been squirming in his seat for several minutes now, scanning the church for any sign of me. Eventually, he spots me in the back row. Miggs motions with his hand for me to come forward and sit with them. I nonchalantly shake my head no, hoping to avoid any type of awkward exchange. But Miggs is persistent, and soon all the PTA wives are swinging their heads back and forth in time, vetting our quid pro quo like spectators at a tennis match.

Miggs lobs. I return.

He pings. I pong.

Meanwhile, every Main Line gadfly in the joint is tugging on her husband’s sleeve, eager to figure out who’s fucking who.

Shame on them, I think to myself.

What the devil hath joined, let no man put asunder.

*

The large wooden doors of the church swing open behind me, casting a 45-degree ray of sunlight across the center aisle. Father Frank appears like a silhouette in the doorway, draped on either side by altar boys.

Father Frank nods to no one in particular, and a pipe organ calls the congregation to its feet. He then leads a procession of second graders in a single-file line toward the altar. The boys are all dressed in matching white sleeves and suit coats; the girls are all dressed in lace.

Sara is the shortest student in her class, which is why she’s been chosen to lead the procession. She passes me slowly – feet facing forward, eyes facing God.

The students behind her follow suit – one foot placed firmly in front of the other, hands clasped in steeple formation, as if there was an invisible textbook balanced overhead.

Once the students reach the altar, they fan out in a T-formation – girls to the left, boys to the right. They fill the first three pews on opposite sides of the altar.

Meanwhile, the Main Line faithful are swaying back and forth like palm trees, their voices joined in song:

 

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

Oooooooooooooh, sometimes it causes me to tremble.

Tremble.

Tremble

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

I was not there when they nailed him to the tree.

But right about now, I feel like I might as well have been.

*

The first and second readings are delivered by two of Sara’s classmates, both of whom I tune out, opting instead to scan the congregation, counting the number of adult women I’d like to have sex with, given the opportunity.

My ears perk up again during the gospel, however. It is a reading from the Book of Matthew – a passage about the devil luring Jesus to the ends of the earth in an attempt to compromise his beliefs.

In this particular passage, the devil prompts Jesus, who is in the midst of a 40-day fast, out into the desert, insisting that if he truly is the son of man, he can turn the stones into bread and satisfy his hunger. Jesus rejects the devil’s reasoning on principle, claiming that man cannot live on bread alone.

The devil then hoists Jesus high atop a temple in Jerusalem, tempting him to prove his son-of-manhood by throwing himself to the ground below. If Jesus really is the son of God, the devil argues, angels will surely swoop in and save him. Christ, who has just about had it at this point, tells the devil – in no uncertain terms – to go fuck himself.

Harsh, I know. But you can’t very well tell the devil to go to hell, now can you?

In a fit of anger, the devil whisks Jesus away to the highest mountaintop, where he offers the messiah all the kingdoms of the earth in return for his undying loyalty.

But Jesus stands his ground, informing the devil that if he doesn’t like it, he can – in fact – go sit on a tack.

Exit devil. Enter choir of angels.

End scene.

*

I’ve always dug that particular passage, specifically because the devil reminds me so much of General Zod from Superman II, what with all his silly ultimatums and bad real estate deals.

The devil offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth.

General Zod offered Lex Luthor Australia … Australia!

In the end, neither one had any intention of holding up his end of the bargain.

Kind of reminds you of the subprime mortgage market, no?

*

Anyway, I find a great deal of wisdom in that particular passage, so much so that I made it the focal point of Subhuman: Volume One’s opening chapter.

In that chapter, Pastor Paul Prince, one of the novel’s main characters (and eventual antagonists), reads that passage to his congregation, before delivering a sermon about how “We are all our brothers’ keepers.”

This becomes a recurring theme throughout Subhuman, playing out via an intricate subplot involving Pastor Paul and his twin brother, New London Police Commissioner Peter Prince.

Pastor Paul oversees a Catholic parish in Gray Gulch – a high-crime drug zone located along the north end of New London. The conflict arises as a result of a deal Pastor Paul makes with his brother to rid Gray Gulch of its criminal element.

The Commissioner, who secretly controls most of the drug trade and real estate in New London, agrees to help his brother under one condition: Once a month, Pastor Paul is required to drive down to the docks and pick up a shipment of Eucharistic wafers. Buried deep inside the shipping crates, far beneath those wafers, are several kilograms of heroin.

As part of the deal, Pastor Paul is instructed to hide the drugs in the catacombs beneath his church. Once a week, Pastor Paul carries a duffel bag full of heroin with him into a confessional in the rear of the church. Shortly after he arrives, a drug courier enters the confessional. The courier speaks to Pastor Paul in code, as if he were offering a true confession. Once the pastor is assured he’s talking to the right person, he removes a small one-foot-by-two-foot sheet of wood from the partition, and slides the duffle bag across the floor to the courier.

A minute or so later, the courier slides an empty duffle bag back across the partition.

No money is exchanged. No faces are seen.

And so it goes for several months, until Pastor Paul grows frustrated with the fact that the shipments are getting larger, rather than smaller (in violation of the original agreement). Pastor Paul complains to his brother, but the Commissioner stands firm, explaining that he held up his end of the bargain, running all of the dealers and addicts out of Gray Gulch.

Pastor Paul continues to protest, insisting a scandal like this could ruin his church forever.

Emotions run high. And eventually, Commissioner Prince threatens to go to the press, exposing his brother and his church if the pastor refuses to fall in line.

It is at this point, desperate and defeated, that Pastor Paul threatens to go to the FBI.

That threat does not sit well with New London Police Commissioner Peter Prince, who subsequently orders a local kingpin to “administer the Last Rites” to Pastor Paul.

(Note: This is where all the kick-ass comic book stuff comes into play).

The kingpin, who operates a meth lab in a warehouse basement downtown, has his people cook up a lethal cocktail of experimental steroids, laced with cyanide. The kingpin schedules a secret meeting with Pastor Paul, claiming he too feels slighted by the commissioner’s double dealings.

The kingpin sends four of his lieutenants to the meeting, which is set to take place inside the church during the dead of night.

The four lieutenants arrive early. They douse the church in gasoline. Then they wait for Pastor Paul to arrive.

When he does, they knock him to the ground, hold him down, and inject the steroid cocktail into his bloodstream. Pastor Paul lies writhing on the ground, screaming in agony as his muscles convulse and expand, tearing through his clothes.

His eyes roll back. His veins pulse like bloodworms.

Within minutes, Pastor Paul has become part man, part animal. He unleashes a vicious roar that rattles through the church, causing a bronze crucifix to come crashing down upon the altar.

The four lieutenants, meanwhile, run screaming for the door, setting fire to the church as they go. Fearing the consequences, they lie to the kingpin, ensuring him Pastor Paul’s body burned in the fire.

From that point forward, Pastor Paul becomes known as The Preacher – an ultra-violent hulk of a man who quotes scripture before laying waste to his enemies.

*

Toward the end of Subhuman: Volume One, The Preacher confronts his brother in a center city laboratory which houses a molecular reconfiguration chamber.

The confrontation turns violent, and – at one point – The Preacher swats the Commissioner’s service revolver from his hand. In the scramble that ensues, The Preacher turns the revolver on his brother, firing three shots into the commissioner’s chest.

The impact sends Commissioner Peter Prince wheeling backward, over a railing, and into the reconfiguration chamber – a chamber capable of zeroing in on the chemical properties of any object and attaching those properties to a much larger object.

“I am my brother’s keeper,” The Preacher says, before flipping the switch, throwing the chamber into action, and leaving the commissioner for dead.

Only Commissioner Peter Prince isn’t dead, which – you might recall – is the entire point of leaving your characters for dead in the first place.

Commissioner Prince emerges from the chamber as Leadbelly – a ruthless anti-hero whose entire body composition retains the same chemical properties of lead.

As the Subhuman comic book franchise continued to evolve, Leadbelly emerged as the most popular, and marketable, of all Subhuman’s enemies.

But that had nothing to do with me.

I just set out to write a book about heroes and villains and second chances.

DC Comics took care of the rest.

*

Back to the service at Holy Redeemer.

After the gospel, we reach the sit-stand-kneel portion of the program.

During the presentation of the gifts, I hear the large wooden doors of the church opening behind me. I turn to look, as do half the parishioners in my aisle. There, just inside the doorway, stands my ex-agent, Ben Butler, soaking his fingers in the holy water as if it were Palmolive.

I’m not sure who invited Ben Butler. I only know that I did not invite him, mostly because the two of us haven’t spoken since Ben abandoned me in a San Diego parking lot at four o’clock in the morning.

Ben tiptoes up to the pew where I’m sitting. He genuflects beside me.

“Did I miss much?” he whispers, blessing himself.

“You’re talking about the mass, right?” I whisper back, leaning into Ben’s ear.

“Yes,” Ben whispers, laughing. “The mass.”

“How should I know?” I whisper. “I only come here for the Benediction. The incense gets me high.”

“I think that’s the intention,” Ben whispers, leaning his elbow on the side of the pew.

“C’mon,” I whisper, pointing to a door along the far right side of the church “Let’s take a walk. The ushers in here hate it when you talk during the performance.”

“Lead the way,” Ben Butler whispers.

And we exit stage right.

***

The door on the far right side of the church leads to a powder-blue corridor, which connects the Church of the Holy Redeemer to an elementary school of the same name.

The corridor is long and narrow and the ceiling hangs low and ominous, as if the walls are quite literally closing in. Along the left-hand side of the corridor is a six-foot trophy case with a running banner overhead that reads: “HOLY REDEEMER ELEMENTARY PROUDLY PRESENTS: SHOEBOX STATIONS!”

Every shelf in the trophy case is lined with cardboard shoeboxes.

Each shoebox depicts one of the 10 stations of the cross. Wooden clothespins double as stick figures. Cotton balls double as beards. Small swatches of felt and cloth double as robes. Tin foil doubles as armor.

I find the entire display intriguing, so much so, in fact, that I stand still and silent for several minutes, scanning every shoebox for intricate details. In the center of the display case I notice a Payless shoebox with a blue “1st Place” ribbon attached to it. Just beneath the ribbon, there is a printed tag that reads: “Jesus Falls the Third Time. By: Ariana Armani, Josh Ford, Laura Tedesco, and Tommy Lee.”

“Your kid make that?” Ben Butler asks, looking over my shoulder.

“Yep,” I say, staring past the shoebox at my reflection in the glass. “He sure did.”

I remain frozen there for several seconds, lost inside my own thoughts.

“You OK?” Ben asks, as we continue down the corridor. “I feel like I lost you back there for a minute.”

“Yeah, sure … I’m fine” I say, assuming the feeling will pass.

“You don’t seem fine,” Ben says.

“Looking at that shoebox just reminded me of a joke,” I say. “That’s all.”

“Well, let’s hear it,” Ben says, urging me on.

I glance back quickly to make sure no one is wandering down the corridor behind us.

Coast = clear.

“What did God say to Jesus after he dropped the cross the third time?” I say, lowering my voice considerably.

“No clue,” Ben says, shaking his head.

“You drop that thing one more time and you’re out of the parade,” I say.

There really are no limits to what a duplicitous asshole I can be.

*

Ben and I find a classroom where the door is unlocked.

We let ourselves in.

Ben takes a seat behind the teacher’s desk. I negotiate my way into one of the classroom desks, resting my feet on a drawing table across from me.

“So what brings you down to Rosemont, Pennsylvania on such a gorgeous afternoon?” I say.

“Miggs invited me,” Ben says, without hesitation.

“To the service?” I say.

“No, no,” Ben says. “He invited me to the party back at the house. But I didn’t feel right attending one without the other, so here I am. In fact, I would’ve been here on time, if I hadn’t hit traffic on 76.”

“Everyone hits traffic on 76,” I say. “I think it’s a state law.”

“Yeah, well, it sucks,” Ben says.

“So you’re coming back to the house afterward?” I say.

“That’s the plan,” Ben says. “But I have to admit, I was a little bit surprised to have received an invitation in the first place.”

“Why?” I say. “Laura has no problem with you.”

“No, no,” Ben says, leaning back in his chair. “It wasn’t that. I just had no idea you sent Tommy and Sara to a Catholic school, that’s all.”

“Oh, that,” I say, shrugging my shoulders. “That was Laura’s idea.”

“I take it you don’t agree,” Ben says.

“I agree with the notion that eight years of Catholic school instills a certain sense of discipline,” I say. “But I think that’s about where it begins and ends with me. I mean, let’s not forget, I had 12 years worth of Catholic school growing up … and I still haven’t fully recovered.”

“It was that bad, huh?” Ben says.

“The first eight years of my education I was consistently instructed never to question anything I read in the Bible,” I say. “The Bible was considered gospel, dogma, incontrovertible fact. That notion was beaten into my brain so deep and true that no one could ever convince me otherwise.”

“OK,” Ben says. “So when exactly did your crisis of faith occur?”

“My first week of high school,” I say. “After all those years of browbeating, the very first thing I was taught when I stepped foot in a freshman religion class was that Biblical scholars were divided into two parallel factions – the Literalists and the Contextualists.”

“So?” Ben says, failing to see the connection.

“So,” I say, “It turns out the official ecumenical stance is that most of the passages in the Bible – or, at very least, the majority of those in the Old Testament – are meant to be taken contextually. In other words, it’s all nothing more than a big game of whisper down the lane … grade-A bullshit, passed down through the ages. That was my first exposure to the fact that everyone pimps out God for their own selfish purpose.”

“I can see you have some very strong opinions on this subject,” Ben says, his hands folded on the desk.

“Indeed, I do,” I say.

“So what, you don’t believe in Jesus Christ?” Ben asks.

“Jesus Christ, the totally happening dude, or Jesus Christ, the cornerstone of the Catholic Church?” I say.

“Jesus Christ, the cornerstone of the Catholic Church,” Ben says.

“I think Jesus Christ may have been the greatest comic book hero of all-time,” I say.

“Fuck off,” Ben says, dismissing me with a wave of his hand.

“No, seriously,” I say. “Whether you believe Jesus Christ was a poet, a politician or a prophet, the fact remains the New Testament is still a really cool story, and it provides a pretty solid blueprint to live your life by.”

“That’s not bad,” Ben says, after considering this for a moment. “I may have to use that at a party some time.”

“I’ll do you one better,” I say. “There’s an old adage that the true measure of a man’s greatness is what he leaves behind to grow. By that standard, Jesus Christ was easily the greatest man who ever lived … regardless of whether you believe he actually lived or not.”

“What about Walt Disney?” Ben asks, without the least hint of sarcasm.

“Walt Disney is a close second,” I say.

“What makes Jesus so special?” Ben says, goading me.

“Nepotism,” I say.

“Come again?” Ben says.

“In the beginning, it was God, not Walt, who created man,” I say.

“I was under the impression it all started with a mouse,” Ben says.

“Upon this rock, Jesus built his church,” I say, pointing at the ground.

“Welcome to the Magic Kingdom,” Ben says, falling back in his chair.

“Whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believe, and ye shall receive,” I say.

“When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true,” Ben says, folding his hands across his chest.

And so it goes, for several minutes, this banter of ours.

*

“I want you to know that I’m sorry for everything that happened while we were out on the road,” I say, once the laughter has died down.

“No worries,” Ben says. “In an odd kind of way, it might have been the best thing for both of us … a clean break, y’know? Things are better now. I’m better. I’m working on a lot of different projects. I have a steady girlfriend. I have a life, Bobby Lee … a life that isn’t completely hinged upon your career. That’s a good thing, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yeah, I suppose I would,” I say, half-heartedly. “How are things with Miggs?”

“Difficult,” Ben says. “He tries my patience. But it’s not his fault. The man simply cannot help himself.”

“What’s the problem?” I ask.

“The problem is that ‘established author’ Montgomery Miggs severely overestimates his worth,” Ben says. “I’ve had two publishers that were prepared to offer Miggs some decent scratch for the rights to that dream book of his, mostly based upon my ability to market it as a companion text for psych majors.”

“What happened?” I ask.

What happened?” Ben says, emphatically. “Miggs happened, that’s what. He somehow got it into his head that he was L. Ron Hubbard, and insisted we hold out for more money. I spent weeks trying to talk him down, explaining that this wasn’t the NFL and he most definitely wasn’t Tom Brady, but he wouldn’t budge. Now one of the publishers has stopped taking my calls, and the other one has actually withdrawn its bid.”

“Ouch,” I say.

“Ouch is right,” Ben says. “I mean, look, it’s the nature of the business. I get that. But the reality is, when you’re dealing with several different clients at once, the most difficult part of your job is coping with all of their dysfunctional bullshit. Most days, I feel more like a therapist than an agent.”

“So it’s really no different than all of those years you spent representing me?” I say.

“It feels like I’ve traded one major pain in the ass for several minor ones,” Ben says.

“That’s not bad,” I say. “I may have to use that one at a party some time.”

*

“Enough about me,” Ben says, switching gears. “How’s everything on your end?”

“Good,” I say, staring at the ceiling, my mouth agape. “Really good, actually.”

“How good?” Ben asks, skeptically.

“I haven’t had a drink since that night you left me in San Diego,” I say.

“No way,” Ben says.

“Way,” I say.

“How do you feel?” Ben asks.

“With the exception of this divorce, I feel fit as a fucking fiddle,” I say. “I’m sharp. I’m focused. I’m working through the night …”

“Working on what?” Ben asks.

“Huh?” I say.

“You said you were working through the night,” Ben says. “Working on what?”

“Oh,” I say. “My bad. I’m working on a long-term project. A pretty substantial one, actually.”

“I knew it,” Ben says, slapping the desk with his palm. “You finally decided to develop that storyline for DC. I think that’s fantastic.”

“Not exactly,” I say, cutting him short.

“What do you mean ‘not exactly’?” Ben says.

“Not at all,” I say.

“What then?” Ben says.

This,” I say, spinning my index finger in the air.

“What’s this?” Ben asks, mocking the gesture.

This,” I say, spinning my index finger in wider circles. “All of it.”

This?” Ben says, confused.

“That’s right,” I say. “This. The past 12 years … the divorce, the kids, Laura, Miggs … all of it.”

“Everything?” Ben asks.

“Absolutely,” I say.

This?” Ben says, placing his index finger on the desk. “Here … Right now?”

“Without a doubt,” I say. “Chapter and verse.”

“Like, everything?” Ben says, still unclear, “Including our conversation right now?”

“Every word of it,” I say.

“Like an autobiography?” Ben says, still failing to grasp the concept. “Or more like a blog?”

“Go fuck yourself,” I say, resenting the implication.

“What?” Ben says.

“Blogs are where bad writers go to die,” I say.

“I don’t agree with that,” Ben says.

“Maybe you’re a bad writer,” I say.

“So an autobiography?” Ben asks.

“I guess you could call it that,” I say.

“And I’m in there?” Ben asks.

“Yep,” I say. “You’re in there, alright. So are Laura, Miggs, the kids, my lawyer … everybody.”

“You can’t do that,” Ben says, flatly.

“Do what?” I ask.

“You can’t write about any of them without their permission,” Ben says. “They’re not public figures.”

“I think I’ve found a way around that,” I say.

“What kind of way?” Ben asks.

“A literary device,” I say.

“What type of literary device?” Ben asks.

“I’ve changed all the names to protect the innocent … and the assholes,” I say.

“OK,” Ben says, clearly unconvinced. “What’s your name?”

“Bobby Lee,” I say.

“But that is your name,” Ben says.

“I decided to grant myself permission,” I say.

“OK,” Ben says, still confused. “What’s my name?”

“Ben Butler,” I say.

“Ben Butler?” Ben says, disgusted. “That’s horrible. And it sounds nothing like …”

“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” I say, putting my index finger to my lips. “Keep it down. The reader is listening.”

*

“It’ll never sell,” Ben says, arms crossed.

“Why not?” I ask.

“Well, for starters, your core audience is 15-to-35 year-old comic book fans,” Ben says. “Most of whom have little or no interest in reading about your ex-wife fucking your best friend, especially if the two of them are represented as fictional characters with non-existent names.”

“You don’t think comic book fans would be interested in knowing how one of their all-time favorite heroes came into being?” I ask.

“Are you talking about yourself or Subhuman?” Ben asks.

“Subhuman,” I say, disregarding the sarcasm.

“I think there might be some interest in that, yes,” Ben says. “But as far as those fans are concerned, they already know where that character came from. They read all about it in Subhuman: Volume One. What you’re talking about is something completely different – an autobiography in which something like that is little more than a footnote.”

“So what?” I say, digging in. “Almost every celebrity bio out there boils down to one or two must-read chapters, surrounded by a bunch of self-involved bullshit.”

“That’s problem number two,” Ben says.

“What, the self-involved bullshit?” I say. “I’ve got plenty of that.”

“No,” Ben says, adamantly. “The fact that you’re not a celebrity.”

“I’ve got a considerable fanbase,” I say.

“You’ve got a bunch of overgrown teenagers who show up at public appearances to find out if you really exist,” Ben says. “You’re like the Howard Hughes of Comic Con.”

“Stan Lee’s got an autobiography,” I say.

“Stan Lee’s got cataracts,” Ben says, his tone growing more adversarial by the minute.

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” I ask.

“It means Stan Lee’s got 70 years worth of success in the industry,” Ben says. “It means he’s got Spider Man and the Incredible Hulk, The Fantastic Four and the X-Men. It means Stan Lee is the goddamn industry, for Christ’s sake. It means you’re nothing
but a bag boy in comparison.”

“I can see you have some very strong opinions on this subject,” I say.

“Indeed, I do,” Ben says. “But I also have your best interest at heart.”

“I understand that,” I say. “Which is why I was hoping you’d agree to represent me.”

“Who? Me?” Ben says, pointing to his chest. “Oh, no. No-no-no-no-no-no-no. Absolutely not. I washed my hands of that mess a long time ago, Bobby Lee. You’re on your own this time around.”

“C’mon,” I say, pleading with him. “Things are different now. You said it yourself. Besides, you’ve got an entire stable worth of clients to attend to, which means you can dump me on my ass the second I start behaving like a prima donna. You’ll be an agent, Ben, earning a commission for services rendered. And I’ll be a client, enlisting you to broker a deal. I’m ready to make an honest go of this. Really … I am. But I need you in my corner.”

“Things are different now,” Ben says. He is on his feet now, pacing back and forth across the room. “I have a life. I have a girlfriend. I have mortgage payments. I no longer have to worry about how I’m going to get by every month. I no longer have to spend half my time dreaming up new ways for my clients to make money. I no longer have to play nursemaid to an emotional cripple.

“If I agreed to represent you, sooner or later, I’m pretty sure it’d go right back to the way it was. And I simply cannot have that happen. We enable one another, Bobby. We’ve enabled one another for years. In fact, I’d be willing to bet we’ve held one another back in ways we never even realized.”

“Maybe we can do better this time,” I say.

“Maybe,” Ben says, staring at the ground. “And maybe we can do worse.”

“What if I agreed to write the Subhuman storyline for DC?” I say, hoping to sweeten the deal. “You’d still be entitled to your original percentage.”

“This isn’t about money,” Ben says. “It’s about knowing when it’s time to move on.”

*

Just outside the classroom window, parishioners are spilling into the parking lot now. The mass has ended, and they’re going in peace, to love and serve the lord.

It’s time for Ben Butler and I to do the same. Laura is throwing a party back at the house, and both of us are expected to be there.

Ben and I leave our cars in the church parking lot. We decide to walk over to the house, which is only a few short blocks from Holy Redeemer.

“Why didn’t you sit up front with Tommy and Laura?” Ben asks, as we make a left onto Wooded Way.

“Huh?” I say, confused.

“During the mass,” Ben says. “I noticed Tommy and Laura were sitting right up front. Why didn’t you wander up and sit with them?”

“To be honest, I had no interest in sitting there like an asshole while Miggs was playing pussyfoot with my soon-to-be-ex-wife’s shoulder a few short inches away,” I say, defending my cowardice. “I mean, honestly, did you see the way he had that hairy-ass arm of his draped over my son’s shoulder? Gross.”

“You need to stop backing down,” Ben says.

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” I ask.

“It means Miggs is up there in the front row with his arm around your son’s shoulder because you lack the guts to stand up and put him in his place,” Ben says. “Tommy’s your son, for God’s sake, not his. You don’t have to make a scene or anything. But you definitely have the right to walk up and ask your son if it’d be OK for you to sit next to him. Instead, you’re slumped over in the last pew of the church, hanging your head as if it’s you who has something to be ashamed of. At least that’s the impression you’re giving to everyone else in that congregation.”

“Fuck everyone else in that congregation,” I say.

“Hey, I’m with you,” Ben says, palms up. “Fuck ’em all. Just remember, while you’re sitting in the back of the church, basking in the fuck-you of it all, your 10-year old son has got to be sitting in that front row, wondering why it is his father would rather sit alone in the last row of a church than have anything to do with him.”

*

When Ben and I arrive at the house, it’s the little things I notice first.

I notice most of the patio furniture has either been removed or replaced, along with several of the family portraits that hung throughout the house and the tiny wooden placard with our family crest on it that hung over the front door.

The hedges out front look tight and vibrant. The grass looks damp and healthy.

The driveway’s newly paved. The siding’s been repainted.

In a sense, I’ve got to hand it to Laura. The place looks great. No doubt about it.

In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear there was a healthy marriage living inside.

*

Out back, a pack of rabid kids are sprawled across the lawn, soiling their dress whites with every grass stain known to man. Sara spots me as I turn the corner into our backyard. She crashes into me full-speed, bearhugging my leg with everything she’s got.

“I wish you could’ve made it to the mass,” Sara says, looking up at me from below. “But I understand. Mommy explained how busy you are.”

I pull Sara close and tell her I have a gift for her in my car.

I do not bother to mention that I was, in fact, at the mass.

Now’s not the time, I tell myself, despite the fact now is the only time, and I know it.

Sara wanders off in the direction of her classmates. Watching the lot of them laugh and play from the patio, it amazes me how little Laura and I have managed to screw Sara up. I mean, look at her. The girl is only six years old and already, she’s a much better person than Laura or I could ever hope to be. She’s the best daughter a father could possibly hope for, which is ironic, given the pair of cretins she inherited as parents.

Inside, the house is brimming with Laura’s friends and relatives, many of whom treat me like the bastard she’s convinced them I am. I sit on the carpet in the corner of the living room, petting Sara’s pug Roxie for several minutes.

Tommy looks over at me from across the room, but he does not walk over to greet me.

A few minutes later, I catch up with him on the back porch.

“What’s up, little man?” I ask, standing behind him with both hands in my pockets.

“Not much,” Tommy says, grabbing a handful of M&Ms from a bowl on the picnic table. “What’s up with you?”

“Not a whole lot,” I say. “Just been working-working-working, for the most part.”

“Cool,” Tommy says, still going out of his way to avoid eye contact.

“Hey, guess what I saw over at the church today?” I say, my tone more upbeat.

“I don’t know,” Tommy says, as he studies a green M&M sandwiched between his index finger and thumb. “What d’you see over at the church today?”

“I saw that shoebox station thing you won 1st prize for,” I say.

“Oh that,” Tommy says, still preoccupied with the M&M. “Yeah, we won that thing like a week ago.”

“It’s still pretty awesome though, right?” I say, desperately vying for Tommy’s attention.

“Yeah, I guess,” Tommy says, as he wanders toward the back-bay doors, still refusing to make eye contact.

“Where you going?” I call from behind, hoping not to be left alone again.

“I’ll be right back,” Tommy says, pulling the back door open. “Don’t leave. I want to show you something.”

“I’ll wait right here,” I say, as Tommy slams the door shut behind him.

I watch Tommy weave his way through a sea of Laura’s relatives in the kitchen.

As I do, it dawns upon me that things are different now … In more ways than one.

My kids are growing up without me.

And I’m growing old without them.

The shame of it is, in an odd kind of way, I can’t help thinking that perhaps it’s the best thing for everyone involved.

*

©Copyright Bob Hill

(Next Friday: Subhuman: Volume One, Chapter Ten)

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Ten