At midnight I climb out the window and run through the city, staying in back alleys and unlit streets. I keep an eye out for any and all enemies who dare to venture into the night. Though they are many and I am one, I will fight the battle alone

DYSTOPIA Comics is the only all-used-comic-book store in Daly City. Most stores file their back issues away in neat alphabetized rows, each one sealed in a plastic bag with rigid backing. But Dystopia lives up to its name. Comics are stuffed into shoddy cardboard boxes, and Luc and I spend hours rummaging through bin after bin. We always win in the end: in the past half hour Luc has found issues of Justice League and Sandman, even a water-damaged issue of The Watchmen, and I've started a small stack of old issues of Green Lantern, precisely what I need for my research. I sometimes think that Luc and I possess an extra sense, an instinct for finding small treasures among the slightly torn and the discarded.

"Closing time," a husky voice mutters from behind and above me. I do a quick one-eighty, fists clenched and ready. I face the cashier, who stands just inches away from me. His globular, fleshy belly is even closer, oozing over the elastic waistband of his Bermuda shorts. "If you're going to read it, then buy it."

I give Luc the signal and then shift my eyes back to the cashier. "Pardon me, sir," I say, "but your volume is infringing upon my space."

He blinks. "My what?"

"The amount of space your cubic units are occupying."

He blinks again. "So?" Already I've confused him, thrown him off, and all he can do is point to the clock. "Just hurry it up, all right?"

My eye catches the exposed belly once more. With the proper serrated edge I could carve into the flesh, cut a tunnel right through it.

I smile at the mass before me. "Let's go, Luc."

We walk out the door and turn the corner into a narrow alley. We crouch down to the ground, shielded between Dumpsters, and Luc unzips his backpack. From between textbooks and folders he pulls out our stack of comics and gives me my half. "Distract him longer next time," he says. "He almost turned around too soon."

"No backtalk from the sidekick." I tuck my comics away in the secret pocket of my backpack.

The rain has stopped, but we don our hoods anyway. We proceed into the street, outside the crosswalk lines, defying the blinking red hand before us. "Nice work," I tell Luc. "See you tomorrow, oh seven hundred hours."

"Oh seven hundred hours," he confirms.

ON sad nights my mother listens to her 45 rpm of "Johnny Angel" over and over again until she passes out. Tonight is going to be one of those nights. Before I can even lock the door behind me, she starts screaming, asking where I've been. "Nowhere," I tell her. "Just out."

"And what should I do if something happened to you out there?" she asks, one hand on her hip, the other tugging at the neckline of her Las Vegas sweatshirt. "What should I do then?" She takes heavy, staggered breaths and begins to empty out the kitchen cupboards, throwing food we need over the fire escape, weeping, uttering profanities about men and why they are the way they are.

I give her five quick shots of Johnny Walker and put her to bed. I take off her shoes, pull the sheets over her, and press replay on her turntable. She puts her arms around my neck and pulls my face to hers, telling me what a good boy I've been. "Don't you change," she whispers. I can feel the tears on her lips wetting my ear.

"Go to sleep, Mom," I whisper. I pull down the shades, shutting out the last bits of daylight.

She got left again. I knew my mother was feeling hopeful this time around. This guy lasted almost four weeks.

When I warn her, she tells me I'm crazy, so this time I kept quiet. But I saw it coming. Her strategy was faulty: she had been making domestic offerings -- a home-cooked meal of lumpia and pinakbet, Filipino delicacies she calls her love potions. But they lack any magical properties. Her men always see the food as alien and weird, a little too far from home. So they take what they want and then vanish. "Ride a rocket to the moon, that's fine," she once slurred to some guy on the phone, "but baby, baby, won't you please come back?" It was my twelfth birthday party, but I wasn't the one who wanted him there. I took the receiver from her hands. "Accidents happen, bastard," I warned, "so watch your back." She grabbed the phone, hit me with it, and then apologized for my rudeness. But he'd already hung up.

Mom's messed-up universe started with one bad star: a nine-month marriage to the man who was my father. He brought her to the States, a living knickknack from his military days. Their union, brief as it was, spawned me and all my biological peculiarities. "You're like Aquaman," Luc said when I told him the story -- "cool." But Aquaman's mother was a mermaid, his father a human being. Nothing is human within the man who was my father. He disappeared from her life just hours before I was born. What I imagine, what I've even dreamed, is that he is a sinister breed of assassin, with white hair, white skin, and white eyes, invading alien streets, sent to find and fuck my mother and then finish her off. When she is drunk, she talks about my origin, sticking the sick story in my head, panel after panel after panel.

And then she'll break in half, Johnny Angel and Johnny Walker to the rescue. But I forgive her. Like all heroes, she needs her Fortress of Solitude, her Paradise Island, any place tucked away from the evil in the world. Not to worry: I keep a lookout.

is a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University.

Illustrations by Istvan Banyai.

The Atlantic Monthly; October 2000; Superassassin - 00.10 (Part Two); Volume 286, No. 4; page 105-117.

is a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University.

Illustrations by Istvan Banyai.

The Atlantic Monthly; October 2000; Superassassin - 00.10 (Part Three); Volume 286, No. 4; page 105-117.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Crazy Tech Idea Could Become Real?

"There could be great intelligence enhancements, like infinite memory."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier


What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets


Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.


What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In