The air was clear and cold and Hank pulled his collar up and scratched the dry skin of his face with his dirty fingernails. He pulled his knit hat lower and stuffed his hands back into the pockets of his denim coat. Each exhale arrived as a cloud before getting ripped apart by the wind and swept down the alley. He shuffled his feet, kicking his boots together to shake loose the snow.
“Last night my boy asked me a question,” he said.
Bill, the squat man with ruddy cheeks and a blonde beard next to Hank, took a drag from his cigarette. The burning paper crackled. He eased the smoke through his nostrils. It too followed the wind down the alley.
“Yeah,” he said. He pulled back his sleeve and looked at his watch and said, “Break’s over in ten minutes.”
Neither spoke. Cars drove by on the street beyond the alley. When the wind gusted, the naked limbs of the maple trees nearby clattered together. Silent crows rested on a telephone wire above them.
Hank leaned against the wall behind them and said, “Sheila was putting him to bed. You know, bath. Brushing his teeth. That type of stuff. I was sitting on the couch with a beer watching the TV. I can’t remember what was on. But I was watching something. Then Sheila comes out of Joe’s room like she always does, saying this and that about his school and her day and such. I don’t really know. I was tuned out.”
“Wait,” Bill said, “Your boy’s name is Joe?”
Hank shuffled again.
Bill flicked his cigarette into the snow and lit another.
“Yes,” Hank said.
“Huh. Could have sworn it was something with a B.”
Hank scratched his face again.
Bill checked the time on his watch, tapping the face twice and said, “Gotta get the tile up tonight if we’re gonna make any money on this job.”
“We’ve got time,” Hank said. “She’ll go up real easy.”
Bill grunted and hung the newly light cigarette from his bottom lip and put his hands in the pockets of his jeans. Hank watched the crows flick their tails when the wind would come on strong, shifting their balance to stay on the line.
“So Sheila says, ‘Hank, you aren’t even listening to me,’ which was true because I wasn’t. So I say I’m sorry and she says, ‘Joe’s asking for you.’ So I finish my beer in one big pull and a leave the empty can on the table next to the couch. She gives me the look, you know, but I keep the can there anyway. I walk back to Joe’s room and the lights are off so when I open his door I see my shadow thrown over the room, because of the hall light.”
Hank was quiet and Bill jangled the change in his pockets.
“And?” Bill asked.
“And I say, ‘What do you need, Joe?’ He’s got his blankets pulled up to his chin and he’s holding a stuffed animal of a rabbit—“
“What grade’s he in again?”
Hank sighed and looked up at the blue of the sky and the dark clouds in the distance and said, “Man, maybe 3rdor 4th. I think 3rdor 4th.”
“Yeah, I got those grades confused too,” Bill said. “School didn’t do my boy much good either. I should have had him out on the job years ago, you know?”
Hank shrugged and said, “I don’t know if Joe is getting anything out of school, I guess.” And then he said, “Can I have a smoke?”
Bill turned to Hank and took a step back. “Man, I thought you quit,” he said.
“I quit doing ‘em every day. I still smoke now and then. Sheila knows. It’s not a big deal. I just like to know that I have some control, you know? Over my life. What’s that word for it? Agency. Some agency.”
“Amen, brother,” Bill said and pulled the crumpled box from his breastpocket. He shook a smoke to the opening and extended the box Hank’s way. Hank fetched the smoke as Bill pushed the lighter toward him. A car honked on the street at that end of the alley as Hank sparked up and for a brief moment his face was orange in the grey-blue of the day.
He handed the lighter back to Bill and said, “Some weather.” Then he released his smoke. Bill nodded.
“So Joe is laying in bed. Animal, covers, as I said. And I say, ‘What do you need, Joe?’ And he says, ‘I wanted to ask you a question.’ I lean on the doorframe and say, ‘Shoot, kiddo.’ And he says, ‘I want to grow up to be a superhero.’”
“Course he does,” Bill said.
Hank took a drag and said, “I look at him for a second or two and then I say, ‘Joe, that’s not a question.’ He says, ‘Well, I was talking to JJ and Bobby at school. We were talking about superheroes and how you never see them in real life. So, I guess, how can I grow up to be a superhero if they don’t exist?’”
Both men smoked and said nothing. The maple branches were no longer battling each other and one crow looked down at Hank and Bill and turned its head from side to side.
Hank said, “I look around his room at this point and see all the drawings he’s got on his walls. He’s always drawing these pictures of superheroes saving busloads of kids or catching falling airplanes. Then I walk into his room and I kneel by his bed. He isn’t crying or anything. His face is plain and sweet. So, I’m looking at him and I think to myself how do you break this kid’s heart. You know?”
Bill flicked his cigarette onto the ground and there was a small hiss from the cherry end snuffing itself out on the snow. He said, “What do you mean?”
Hank took a long pull from his cigarette and, with smoke escaping around his words, said, “How do you tell your kid that life is bullshit, man? How do you tell him that he ain’t gonna save anyone. These are the thoughts I’m having while I am watching his eyes watch me, like I’m a prophet or something.”
Hank’s voice raised, but he calmed himself.
“See, Bill, I’m sitting there thinking that I don’t have an answer for him because I don’t have an answer for myself. I was born. I grew up. I tile. And I’ll tile until die.”
Bill lit another cigarette and said, “I don’t know if it’s as bleak as all that, man.”
A sedan turned into the alley and both men backed against the wall so that it could pass.
“It’s that bleak,” Hank said.
“Fuck that, Hank. You’re wrong.” As Bill said this he scratched the skin beneath his beard.
“I don’t know,” Hank said. Then he said it again, “I don’t know,” but softer.
“Look man, maybe tiling isn’t the glory you were hoping for as a kid. But I make good money. I put food on the table. I buy the soccer gear and the football gear and I go to gymnastic competitions when they have them.” Bill coughed a laugh and said, “Hell, even my old lady sucks my dick every now and then.”
Hank said, “I know, I know. I didn’t mean to come off like that. It’s just…”
“It’s just what, bud?”
“It’s just, I didn’t know that this was all there was gonna be. I thought there would be more.”
A car revved its engine somewhere around the block and a few of the crows squawked and flew away.
“More what, man?”
“Purpose, I guess. Like, we had something we were supposed to do here.”
Bill took a couple of drags off of his smoke and said, “You make your own purpose as far as I can tell. You seem to be making yourself miserable, Hank.”
Hank didn’t say anything. He shifted inside his coat and finished his cigarette.
“I mean, we’ve been working together a couple of years now,” Bill said. “I’ve never seen you happy. When was the last time you were happy? When was the last time you had joy?”
A man rounded the corner in the alley pushing a beat up shopping cart filled with different colored plastic bags. Their contents could not be determined through the material, but they were full nonetheless. He ambled through the snow humming an unidentifiable tune. Hank and Bill watched him pass without saying a word.
Then Hank said, “About fifteen years ago I was working odd jobs for a couple of years after high school. Pizza delivery. Hardware store. That kind of thing. I did some college. Didn’t like any of it. But I met a girl there. Her name was Kelly. She was real sweet. Like, cared about me, you know? Had a body like a running back. Not fat, just muscle. I thought it was strange at first, but it really grew on me, her body. She seemed sturdy, you know.”
Bill said, “Did she know that you thought she looked like a running back?” A smile crossed his face.
Hank laughed a little and said, “Not really. Didn’t seem like the nice thing to say.” Then he said, “Can I get another smoke?”
Bill said nothing and handed him the pack and the lighter. Hank lit up and returned the items.
After a big drag, Hank said, “I used to play a lot of pinball back then. Loved it. So we go out on this date to my favorite pinball bar. It’s this place with taxidermy animals on the wall and circus colors. They paint the urinals black. God, what was the name of that place? I can’t remember. But we go. We get cheap beers and tequila shots. Throwing the drinks back, man. But when we go to the pinball room, all the machines are hogged up by these fucking jocks. Must be rowers or basketball players or something because they’re really tall. So Kelly and I are on our way the other direction, figuring we’ll grab a table or something and just shoot the shit hoping the huge dudes’ll get bored and leave. And I see this crane game.”
“Like the ones in grocery stores? Arcades?”
“Nobody wins at those fucking machines. They’re rigged.”
“I’m not saying you’re wrong,” Hank said. “They’re hard. But they ain’t rigged like you think. But that’s not what I’m trying to say here. See, this machine was filled with the weirdest shit. You know how it’s mostly stuffed animals you see, right?”
“Right,” Bill said. Clouds had moved in and the first delicate flakes of a snowstorm started to fall. Bill looked up and reached out his hand. A flake landed on it and melted immediately. “I wonder if this will keep up,” he said.
Hank looked up and started again.
“This machine is filled with dildos,” he said. “There are stuffed animals as well. And some plastic ponies. Boxes of condoms. And all kinds of other shit. But what snags me are the dildos.”
Bill started laughing now. “Dildos?!”
“Yeah,” Hank said. “Get this, right near the hole that you drop the prizes down is a huge black dildo. It’s this long and about this big around.” Hank pulls his hands from his pockets and holds them shoulder width apart and makes a C with one hand to show the circumference.
“So I’m deep in the booze at this point and I’m feeling pretty confident, so I turn to Kelly and say, ‘I’m gonna win you that dick.’ She laughs and says, ‘No you are not. I don’t want it.’ And I say, ‘Oh yes you do, hun. You know you love it.’ And I smile and grab her big shoulders and give her a kiss. She keeps laughing and has these deep dimples in her cheeks. I take out a crisp fiver and slide it into the machine. And I move the gripper over the balls end of the dick, you know, because it weighs more. I press the button and watch as the grippers surround the thing and close. And when they lift, the back half comes up in the air. Now at this point I’m yelling I’m so excited, right, but when the grippers get to the top I see I made a mistake. The dick is so long that it can’t be picked up. The crane is dragging it across the other prizes. No way is it going in the hole. When the grippers let go, it falls over the hole, spanning the opening but not falling in.”
At some point, Bill turned toward Hank and was motionless.
“People gather around because of all the yelling I’m doing. And there’s this huge dick right over top of the hole, waiting to be won. And Kelly’s gripping my arm and she’s cheering me on. She’s this beam of light standing next to me just warming me up, you know? Like a mini-sun. And I start yelling in this high-pitched voice, ‘Gimme the dick. Gimme the dick,’ over and over again. And she’s shushing me, but laughing all the same.”
Bill laughed hard. The snow came down around them and the clouds moved closer. He reached out while Hank was talking and grabbed Hank’s upper arm and continued to laugh, his other hand massaging his own side.
Hank had tears in his eyes and was laughing a little too and he said, “I move the joystick just barely and press the button. And this crowd of people is chanting, ‘Gimme the dick,’ right along with me and that gripper comes down square on the shaft and pushes the dick straight down the hole. And I lose my mind. I’m laughing and screaming and I reach into prize door and pull out this big ol’ dick that is so long I have to bend it to get it through the door. Everybody is cheering and I hold up this huge dick like this—“
Hank pulled his hand from his pocket and made the C again above his head like he was holding a spear sideways and shaking it at an opposing warlord.
“I wobble it around and yell and yell and Kelly gives me the biggest hug and she has tears running down her face she is laughing so hard. The bartender comes over and congratulates me. Hell, the bouncer comes by to see what all the commotion is. Says he thought there was a fight.”
Bill wiped away the tears in the corners of his eyes and sighed. Hank looked up at the sky and watched the flakes come down. Each flake that landed on his face would stay for a moment, then transform into a droplet. A few droplets combined and ran over the corner of his cheekbone, down to his jaw, and departed his face.
“What happened next?” Bill asked.
“We got pretty drunk. Kelly was holding my hand as we left the bar and we went out on the town with this dick. She laughed and laughed as I waggled it at everybody that passed by. I stuck it to car hoods. Dumpsters. Pretended it was a sword. And Kelly laughed at all of it.”
Another sedan entered the alley and crept past Hank and Bill. The waning winter light caused the streetlamp at the end of the alley to illuminate. The crows left some time ago and the wire swayed bare in the wind.
“You know,” Hank said, “I had this photo for the longest time. We went to get tacos around 1AM, and Kelly took a picture of me seated at the table while we were waiting for our food. I had my hood on and was bundled up and adjusting the sleeves on my coat. And there’s this giant black dick standing straight up on the table next to me. I have this look on my face. It’s just…you asked me when was the last time I happy. That’s the photo. It’s all over me. Joy.”
A stiff wind came through alley and whipped around the snow. They both hunched their shoulders and pushed their hands a little deeper into their pockets.
“That was the last time,” Hank said.
Bill handed him another cigarette and lit it for him.
Hank looked down the alley to the street beyond. Snowy cars passed the opening.
Bill looked at the cars too and said nothing.
“We drifted apart,” Hank said. “Couldn’t figure out how to talk to each other.”
Hank and Bill smoked in silence for a few minutes. Snowflakes drifted across the brightening orange cone from the streetlamp and a woman with a leashed dog walked through the alley. Hank wiped his nose with the back of his hand. Bill checked his watch and sucked the last from his smoke and flicked it into the new-fallen snow.
“It’s time?” Hank asked.
“Yeah,” Bill said. Then he said, “Hey, what’d you tell your boy? About the superhero thing?”
Hank sucked what was left of his cigarette back in one pull and flicked it into the alley. The hot light of the ember cartwheeled through the air before disappearing into the snow. He rubbed his hands together and blew air between them.
And he said, “I told him he could be whatever he wanted to be.”