I was downtown doing some Christmas shopping—window shopping, really—for Mama and Avie, and wasn’t having much luck. I never knew what to get Daddy—Avie and I usually teamed up to get him a power tool from the hardware store at the last minute, so I was putting off any consideration of that gift entirely. My senior thesis was turned in, and except for a final exam tomorrow, my semester was in the bag. The following spring semester would be my last as a college undergrad. But instead of a sense of relief and anticipation, there was a knot in the pit of my stomach. I found myself worried about Dana, about what I may have done to screw things up and turn her into a megavillain. I dreaded when we’d meet again, when I would inevitably have to kick her ass.
I knew none of it was my fault. Dana had a troubled past, and all the Youthful Permutations had come to Detroit seeking refuge. Soren, Kav, and Kiddo found ways of fitting into the subculture of our North Cass neighborhood and university-cultural district, despite their blatant peculiarities. It seemed that Dana had found a home there, too, first as a bouncer in a lesbian biker bar, then a waitress at the restaurant where I worked, and finally as an artist’s model. But Avie reported Dana had turned to more lucrative work—private sessions as a dominatrix for local automobile execs, Warren Woodward professors, and corrupt local politicians. She never let men touch her, of course, so these weird scenes didn’t count as prostitution, at least to my mind—they weren’t even a violation of the unwritten code of conduct for the Y+Thems. More spookily, she’d adopted a spiked cape and the tendency to evaporate—I wondered if she’d turned into some kind of megapowered vampire.
What was so disturbing was that I somehow felt Dana was in competition with me, felt threatened by me—or rather, Ms. Megaton Man—and I couldn’t figure out why. I was no threat to her; I didn’t even want to join the Y+Thems—I barely wanted to be a megahero at all. Yet Dana seemed fixated on me—Ms. Megaton Man—and behaved as if she were in direct competition with me. It was almost an alpha-male impulse with Dana, and I couldn’t figure out the source of it.
I made the mistake of relenting and sleeping with her—Christ, she gave me the best head I’ve ever gotten in my life—and she turned out to be a surprisingly considerate lover. But even then—even while she was going at it like a demoness with her tongue, her nose nuzzled in my fur—I got the sense she was studying me, learning my weaknesses, sizing me up in every possible way to take me down—to take Ms. Megaton Man down.
Kiddo told me Domina had certain powers of mind control—to me, it just seemed like garden variety pathological manipulative behavior—but Dana reported to Kiddo that they failed to work on me. Dana seemed most irate that I would sleep with men after I’d slept with her—in her view, she should have been man enough for anybody, and after sleeping with her, I should have been set straight once and for all—pun intended.
All I knew was that I somehow had attracted this person into my life who could be a world-beater, if only she made a few better choices and held a few different, more positive notions in her head, instead of going down the self-defeating, self-destructive path she was on. But Dana wrestled with demons that drove her to the darker side, demons I just couldn’t understand.
A leather-clad dominatrix nude model vampire with a radical lesbian-separatist ideology. Leave it to me.
Anyway, the Y+Thems assured me they had my back, should I need to kick Domina’s ass—why they couldn’t handle the job wasn’t entirely clear. But I couldn’t even be sure Domina was still in Detroit, other than the awful gut feeling I had. I wondered how I might get a message to her to arrange for a showdown, just the two of us, man to man. I thought of using some of the same safety-orange spray paint she’d used to put up anti-Ms. Megaton Man graffiti all over town—and had planted in my friends’ houses to cast suspicion on them—to make a reply.
I tried to imagine Dana, in her studded leather thong outfit, scrawling adolescent but still hurtful shit about me all over the city, calling me a slut and whatnot, trying not to get safety-orange spray paint all over her red gloves and beautiful olive skin. I would take the higher road, and compose more literary graffiti: “Meet me at Gratiot and Outer Drive at high noon, you rug-munching fuckbitch—that is, if you think you’re man enough—and I’ll teach you a lesson you’ll never forget!” But no, that lacked concision. Let’s face it, I was too used to writing long-winded academic papers and was absolutely terrible at editing myself. Besides, tagging abandoned buildings just wasn’t my style. Besides, I was sure to get orange paint all over my yellow gloves.
What I needed was a wicked witch on a broom to write a smoke-signal in the sky for me: “Surrender, Domina!” Short, and to the point.
I was gazing up at the skyline of downtown Detroit as I pondered these thoughts, admiring some of the older skyscrapers, many of which had billboard advertising low to the ground but others adorned with ancient, hand-painted signs for obsolete products like castor oil or glamorous, defunct brands of shampoo. These palimpsests had mostly flaked from their red brick grounds, leaving ghostly reminders of a bygone era, but still stretched several stories into the sky.
That was when I first spotted a figure dangling from a thick, white rope between the skyscrapers out of the corner of my eye. At first, I thought it was an errant window washer whose rig had pried loose from the side of a building; my muscles tensed as Ms. Megaton Man readied to spring into action. But as my eyes locked onto him I realized he was not falling but actually climbing up the white rope. Then, he stopped, pulled out a pistol attached to his belt by a hose, took aim, and shot an orgasmic stream of thick, globby fluid to a nearby building, which instantly hardened into a tether. Once secured, he let go of the old rope and swung to the other wall on the new rope. Then he crawled along the cornice like a bug until he reached the corner. From there, another stream from his prong-like hand-tool went out, landing on another nearby edifice, permitting him to swing again.
“Oowee! We have a rope-swinger!” I cried out loud.
The situation clearly didn’t call for the intervention of Ms. Megaton Man, but I was still curious about who this fellow megahero might be—and frankly how many loads he had stored away in that priapic pop-gun. He was blocks away, probably near Grand Circus Park, but I didn’t have a clear line of sight to watch his progression along the skyline, owing to the angled streets. All kinds of buildings obscured my view, and I lost him.
I thought I might be able to keep up with him on foot, without resorting to changing into my Ms. Megaton Man uniform and flying, so I took a quick detour around the block to see if I could spot his figure again, but there was no sign of the swinging interloper.
I guessed it must have been one of several costumed crime fighters I’d read about in some of the clippings Kozmik Kat and I had collected from local newspapers, although I couldn’t remember what he was called or much detail about him. Even at a distance I could see wore a head-to-toe costume that completely concealed his body, with green glass bubbles over his eyes that gave him a bug-eyed look. He wore a utility belt and clearly produced a prolific amount of whatever that stuff was from an unmistakably phallic pistol. It was thrilling to see such feats with the naked eye; in New York, rope-swingers were more common—supposedly, there was even one who was legally blind who used radar to navigate. There, a rope-swinger literally had miles and miles of tall buildings to swing between; I’d seen Manhattan myself when I’d visited the previous winter. But Detroit offered only a sparse concentration of skyscrapers confined to a mere handful of downtown blocks, hardly enough to allow a rope-swinger to really go to town. What if he needed to get uptown, or over to the eastern neighborhoods? Maybe he ran along rooftops and skittered along power lines.
I put the roof runner out of my mind and went about my business. I shopped a nice sweater for Avie, one I thought would show off her fabulous boobs, and a wool scarf and mittens for Mama—they reminded me of Bing. And I got candles for both of them—you can never go wrong with candles as holiday gifts. As I came out of a boutique along Cadillac Square, I spotted the rope-swinger, wall-crawler, and roof-runner again, doing all three things, finally arriving at a Baroque skyscraper that stood in majestic isolation at the northwestern edge of downtown, only about three blocks from where I stood. He proceeded to climb down its immense fire escape on the side of the building that faced away from the street. It could be seen clearly from a distance, but few pedestrians I passed as I ran on foot seemed to notice.
There was an elaborate piece of public art that wound through Washington Boulevard in those days, a kind of red sky rail about a story above the street. If he hopped onto that thing, I feared, he would scurry along and I’d lose him again. I took the risk that he was done with his load-lobbing and intended to crawl down to street level, maybe even to change into his secret identity and go to work or whatever. I came to the long alley formed by two shorter block-like buildings leading up to the rear of the tower. He was working his way down the fire escape to the ground, not simply walking down as one would in a fire, but climbing down its outside. Luckily, there was no other nearby skyscraper to shoot his rope at or swing to. If his destination was the street, he would have to come out this way. I entered the alley—relatively neat and tidy as allies go, with a few discreet dumpsters filled with inert refuse—and waited for him to drop down, virtually on top of me.
I spotted him, several stories up. His costume was a thick, leather-like material of puce and rust color; it seemed like this might have inhibited his movement. But he was lithe and agile—and had a terrific ass. He was climbing down feet first, although he probably could have climbed down face first, like an insect. When he turned his head I could see the eyes of his mask—they were indeed translucent green glass or plastic bubbles rimmed with yellow metal that gave him a bug-like visage. From his utility belt dangled his pistol, made of the same yellow metal, attached by a hose to a metal reservoir that must have held the fluid he ejaculated to form his ropes. The nozzle of the pistol was the most phallic looking thing I’d ever seen in my life—an almost perfectly sculpted metallic glans. It even had a glistening dewdrop on its tip, reminding me of a spent cock after sex.
I liked the way he moved: his arms, his legs, his smooth, tight ass. I began hoping that he liked girls.
As he got closer to the ground, he still hadn’t spotted me. He probably assumed the alley would be empty and that he’d be able to switch into his secret identity unobserved. What was I going to say to him, anyway? “Hey, mister, are you in the local megahero union? We’re having a membership drive…” I wondered if I should just hide behind a dumpster and pretend I wasn’t there until he’d done his business and gone.
Instead, I blurted out, “Hey, slick! You’re going to need a bigger downtown if you want to rely on rope-swinging for transportation!”
I must have startled him; he’d been concentrating on grabbing handholds on the fire escape all the way down the side of the building. Now he looked around for my voice, missed a handhold, and suddenly fell. He reached for his pistol, but had no time to fire off a rope to break his fall. He crashed into a dumpster filled with cardboard, plywood, and wooden pallets.
“Sorry,” I said, when the bug-eyes of his mask peered over the side of the dumpster. He pulled himself up and perched on the edge.
“Jesus Christ, you scared the shit out of me,” he said, through ventilation slits over the mouth of his form-fitting helmet. This breathing apparatus gave his voice an artificial, tinny echo.
He dropped to the pavement and dusted himself off. He stood taller than me but was still a bit short for a male megahero. But what a nice body.
Anger—or alarm—flashed in his eyes.
“Who the hell are you?” he demanded. “You’re not with the media, are you? I told you guys, I’m not granting interviews.”
“Don’t worry, slick,” I assured him, as I helped to dust drywall crumbs from his shoulder and pecs. The material of his uniform was rough, leathery. “I’m just a friendly neighborhood megahero, like you.”
“I’m not a megahero,” he protested. “I’m just…I don’t know what I am,” he confessed, searching for word. “I just have this crazy alien costume which, thank God, helped break my fall. But I don’t know what to do with it half the time. I’m just stuck with it.”
“A costumed crime fighter,” I said. “That’s cool. I’m in the same situation.” I opened my jacket and the unzipped the hoodie underneath. “See?”
The roof-runner recoiled. “What are you, crazy?” he cried. “The last thing I need is some kind of mentally-disturbed, underaged groupie flashing me in an alley. If the cops caught us, who do you think they would blame?”
I looked down at my torso. The V-neck of my costume revealed my brown skin nearly to my navel. Unfortunately, my coat didn’t show any of my yellow of my uniform, and it looked as though I was topless underneath.
I unzipped my coat all the way. “It’s an M, silly—see? I’m Ms. Megaton Man. And I happen to be twenty-one.”
“Congratulations,” he said. “You have the torso of a teenager, with very hard nipples. They’ll still send me to jail, for sure.”
Angrily, I zipped up my hoodie again, because it was getting cold.
“Oh, just forget it,” I said. “You have more hang-ups than anyone I know…and I know some repressed people, let me tell you.”
“Wait a second,” he said. “The burgundy hair, the yellow M…. Sure—I’ve heard of you. You’re that primary-colored black girl who’s been spotted flying between Detroit and Ann Arbor. But where’s your red cape?”
“I have it right here,” I said. “I keep it in my book bag along with my vi…” I pointed to my shoulder, but realized I hadn’t been carrying my backpack since I’d stopped at a couple places over near Harmony Park. “Shit! They made me check it at the counter at Funky Broadway—I need to go back and get it.” I turned to run out of the alley, but not before telling the roof-runner, “Maybe we could grab a beer sometime—not now, but later. There are so few of us megaheroes in Detroit—you never know when you’ll need a back-up. You and I should network.”
“I told you, I’m not a megahero,” he said. “But that is a nice, um, costume…what’d you have in mind?”
I told him where I usually hang out after work—the Bottleneck, & Tie-Up Bar when I’m in the mood for girls, Ty’s First Base when I’m in the mood for guys. I probably shouldn’t have been that specific, but I was in a hurry. “They’re both up in North Cass, if you know the neighborhood. How about Ty’s, around eleven?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve been seeing all sorts of nasty graffiti about you all over the city. You have something of a reputation. And I’ve had some really crummy luck with women lately, mostly because I ignored some really obvious red flags like that.”
Shit. I forgot about Dana’s graffiti.
“Look, I’ve only gotten laid six or eight times this semester,” I snapped. “Sure, most of those were freaky-binge all-nighters, and mostly with different partners”—I tried counting on my fingers, but only got confused—“but, sweet Jesus, that’s less than a dozen encounters in the half-year since I moved back to Detroit. I ask you, does that seem like an inordinate amount of fucking to you?”
“Seems modest,” he said, raising his hands defensively. I had him nearly backed against the alley wall. “I’d hesitate to compare my own paltry sex-life, however.”
“Seems modest to me,” he said, raising his hands defensively. I had him nearly backed against the alley wall. “Although it doesn’t compare badly against my only paltry sex-life, lately.”
But I wasn’t listening; I was on a roll:
“Can I help it if I’ve managed to find some small amount of love and companionship in this world, or that it happens to a spectacularly colorful, well-chosen assortment of sexual experiences with an interesting variety of lovers?” Okay, maybe I was embellishing. “And here that fucking bitch makes me out to be the most promiscuous nymphomaniac of nineteen-eighty-three—I ask you, is that fair?”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You’re obviously the victim of a very unfair smear campaign.”
“Thank you!” I shouted at him. “Look, I’ll be there tonight wither way; maybe we’ll run into each other, maybe not—if not, no problem. But right, now I have to fetch my cape and buttons before somebody messes with them, or they throws a tantrum and burn down all of Greektown.”
I retrieved my cape, buttons, and visor without incident and got my gift parcels safely back to my apartment. After a hot bubble bath, I worked a full shift at the Union Stripe Café, after which I went to Ty’s First Base and sat through some really lousy poetry—it was open mic night for urban poets, although our cook Ron wasn’t on the bill. After twelve-thirty, I began to think my date had stood me up, or maybe we’d gotten our signals crossed. So I went to the Bottleneck & Tie-Up Bar for some really lousy women’s music, nursing a Short’s Signature for over an hour. I had to wave off several biker dykes who wanted to dance with me, although I was sorely tempted. It was getting late and I had to face facts: I had struck out with the Slick—that was my pet name for him—or rather, I had just scared him off.
Under different circumstances I might have just drank myself silly and taken home whatever looked best at closing time, but I didn’t want to overdo the booze. I needed to keep my head clear for tomorrow’s exam and had intentionally slow-walked a total of two beers over the course of the evening. I needed to head home soon if I wanted to get a good night’s sleep; I could do some final review for my exam tomorrow morning.
Outside, the cold night air was bracing and the lights of the city soothing. I headed back to my apartment, crossing Second Avenue at the corner. I thought I heard something scurrying above and behind me, and looked up to see the powerline shaking. Then, somebody landed on the pavement next to me. I turned my head and found myself staring into the green-glass bugeyes of my new acquaintance.
“Pretty slick,” I said, “getting a girl all worked up by keeping her waiting. But jumping out of the dark at a person in Detroit is a good way to get yourself shot.”
“I’m not too worried,” he said. “This alien outfit’s thick as rhino hide—it’s kept me bullet-free so far.”
“Alien, huh?” I said. “You mentioned that before. I know some aliens…it does look a little extraterrestrial in its tailoring. I know it protects your from short falls, but does it protect you from all human contact, too?” I brushed his arm suggestively with my hand.
“That depends,” he said. “You live around here?”
“Of course I live around here. I’m on foot, aren’t I?”
“You’re upset ‘cause I’m late,” he said. “I don’t blame you.”
“Don’t apologize,” I said. “You never planned to show up on time. I know the type.”
“I really wasn’t sure if I should come at all,” he said. “This isn’t easy for me. I mean, it’s hard enough meeting people the normal way. I’ve never met somebody when I was…in this persona.”
“You could have taken it off before you came here,” I said. “Don’t you have a change of clothes?”
“I wasn’t thinking,” he said. “I didn’t want to presume.”
“It’s all or nothing with you, eh?” I said. “It’s like that with me, too. When I meet someone, I’m either taking my clothes off immediately, or never seeing them again. I can’t seem to negotiate an in-between.”
I took his hand.
There weren’t many people out, and we didn’t attract much attention as we walked along the sidewalk. Most of the commuters who came downtown for work or school in the daytime had long since gone home; anyone who was still in the city limits of Detroit after dark was pretty much there for their own sordid pursuits, not to spy on megaheroes who were slipping back to their pads to hook up. We turned into the long alley that led to the back stairs of my apartment.
“You’re pretty cool,” he said, “not jumping out of your skin. Most women find me terrifying, even in daylight.”
“It’s a safe neighborhood,” I said. “Besides, there’s a whole church at the end of the block filled with Youthful Permutations who I know would come running if they heard me scream.”
I told him my real name and that I was a student at the Arbor State Extension, and that I’d be a grad student at Warren Woodward next fall.
“Now, tell me about yourself,” I said. “Do you live in that costume full-time? I knew a guy like that once; Yarn Man.”
“There’s not much to tell,” he said. “A UFO crashed, and a dying alien gave me his space suit. The pistol was my own modification. It helps me get across town quickly, but otherwise, I don’t know what it’s good for.” We stopped at the foot my stairs. “You should probably be careful about sharing your personal information, even if you are America’s Nuclear-Powered hero.”
That honorific filled me with pride, and made me understand why I might be more than a little intimidating to a costumed crimefighter who can only swing on a rope.
“What, you’re not going to tell me your secret identity?” I said. “How about let’s start with your megahero name. You do have one, don’t you?”
“I told you, I’m not a megahero,” he said.
“Then I guess I’ll just keep calling you the Slick.”
“That’s as good as any, I suppose.”
“So, would you like to come up?” I asked, glancing up at the back of my building. “This is where I live.”
“You mean to network?” he said, nervously.
I was beginning to wonder how much actual experience he’d had with girls, or whether he was just the neurotically insecure type.
“Sure, you can show me how your pistol works,” I said. “We can see how many times we can get it to shoot.” Usually, my abrupt, clever double-entendres elicit a laugh, but my ribald sense of humor wasn’t working with this guy. “You know, I really can’t get a sense of what you’re thinking behind those glassy bug-eyes. Doesn’t your helmet come off at least, so you can give me a kiss goodnight?”
“When it wants to,” he said. “It’s symbiotically attached itself to my metabolism. I have some control over it, but it has a mind of its own, sometimes. I have to really be comfortable with somebody before I can open up.”
He touched my arm, caressing it lightly.
“I would like to use your bathroom, if I may,” he said. “Usually, I can get it to let me do that.”
Boy, the Slick was a real stick in the mud.
“Fine,” I said, exasperated. I climbed the first step of the stairs to the first landing. “Follow me.”