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O C T O B E R 2 0 0 0
FROM 1958 TO 1965 the Green Lantern thwarts villains from every quadrant of the galaxy. At the end of the sixties he is ordered by the Guardians to return home, to uphold good on Earth. For the first time he encounters evils that the Guardians themselves cannot defeat: racism, poverty, overpopulation. "Ironic," he thinks in Green Lantern #187, carrying the dead body of a black man beaten by racist thugs, "with my power ring I can drain an entire ocean, shrink an entire galaxy to the size of a penny. Yet hatred and human cruelty are still impervious to it!"
This is a turning point in the Green Lantern's history. Though many claim it is the defining experience of his career, I will argue that it distracted him from his primary objective: the upholding and protection of justice at the galactic level. This paper will show that his return to Earth was a mistake, one we would pay for decades later.
AIN dots my paper, so I put it inside. I'm wet but warm, wrapped up in a black Army-issue blanket. I remain on the fire escape.
I can hear mothers' voices screaming for their kids to come in, old homeless men arguing for space beneath an awning. Ten minutes later and twenty yards beyond, a teenager holds a knife against an old woman's neck while his friend rummages through her purse. When they're done, they shove her to the ground, light their cigarettes, and walk away.
Nourished by the elements, bloated with stars, our universe is still a hungry one; even I can feel it. So why did the Guardians send him back? With our region of space abounding in alien threats, why did the Green Lantern return? I was resistant at first, but I'm beginning to see the point of the assignment: This is the inquiry of history, just like Mr. Cosgrove says. It changes when the perspective changes. It's too late to repair the as-is of planet Earth. In the end we're the residue that the Green Lantern's ring can't penetrate.
Drizzle turns to storm, but I'll sit here for another hour before I go in.
HIS morning I knock on my mother's door, three times, but she's out cold. She's already late for work, so I go into her bedroom and lay her pink waitress uniform on a chair. I whisper good-bye and then leave for school.
Luc meets me on the corner. "Ready?" I ask.
He opens his backpack. "It's all here."
"Good," I nod. "Let's go."
We have our enemies. Today Luc and I will deliver Brandon DeStefano to justice.
Last week we were reading comics at lunch on the football-field bleachers when Brandon and Tenzil walked by. "It's Luc the Gook!" Brandon screamed. I gave him the finger, and Luc told him to run along with the other nonsentients. "Nonwhat?" Brandon said, climbing up toward us, bleacher by bleacher. "I don't understand Korean, gook." Then Tenzil reached from behind and snatched Luc's comic (an almost valuable issue of Swamp Thing #12) right out of his hands. He tossed it to Brandon, who stuffed it down the back of his pants, farted on it, and then dropped it in a puddle beneath the bleachers. "Freaks," he said. Then they walked toward the lunch courtyard, a trail of sinister ha-ha-has ricocheting behind them.
Luc went down to rescue the comic, but I kept Brandon in my eye when I noticed that something about him wasn't quite right: his head started twitching, shoulder and ear crashing against each other. His spine arched him forward and back, forward and back, each vertebra breaking through skin until the body was no more. Then, in a sudden flash of light, Brandon deStefano became The Gas, a force able to release methane-based emissions powerful enough to stun an enemy or wipe out an entire planet. Luc and I vowed revenge, and I intend to get it every time I can.
We get to school early, while the boys' locker room is still empty. We find The Gas's locker, and in seventy-four seconds Luc picks the lock. I pull the impostor Right Guard deodorant from my backpack and make the switch.
Later, when PE is over, Luc and I dress quickly, taking position by our lockers. We keep an eye out for The Gas, who has just emerged from the showers. He comes closer and closer but pays us no mind. In regular street clothes we are anonymous, merely mortal men.
The Gas dries himself off and reaches into his locker for his deodorant. He shakes the can once, twice, and removes the cap. He raises his arm above his head, positioning the Right Guard at his armpit. Before he can spray, Luc and I vanish.
The Gas has no idea of the power that's about to befall him; no one ever does. But this is how I like it. First my enemies underestimate me; then I smash them.
O you think it'll heal?" On this team Luc is the conscience.
"No one has ever died from a scorched armpit," I tell him, stashing another swiped teacher's edition in my locker. He knows I speak the truth. I don't say things just to be reassuring.
The final bell rings. By tomorrow morning we'll hear snippets of talk here and there about the incident. Campus security will circulate in homerooms and PE classes, spouting the same refrain: If we work together, we can prevent this from happening again.
Feeble heroism from the crooked authorities. This is what they said last time and the time before that, and no one suspected our true identities then. "We ought to celebrate," I decide. "Meet me at Kingpin Donuts before school tomorrow."
Luc stares into my eyes as if he means to challenge me. "You said you would change the deodorant into spray paint, not a blowtorch," he whispers. "You said you wouldn't do this anymore."
"Shut up." I slam my locker shut. "We're done for today. Go home."
FTER school I check on my mother at the restaurant. I take my station on an adjacent rooftop, over what was once a tropical-fish store. I would stop in after school just to watch the fish, tracing their paths with my finger. I liked the bubble aquariums best -- the fish looked airborne, flying around in their Plexiglas globes like lovely winged mutants. Four months ago the store was bombed (by a Filipino gang, the newspapers suspected), and the next day I walked by to find half the storefront missing, the floor blanketed with aquarium shards. I entered and walked among the ruins, the crunch of glass beneath my feet. Beams of morning light seeped through broken windows and cracks in the wall, teleporting me to a kaleidoscopic world: ruby- and sapphire- and emerald-colored fish lay on the ground, lifeless, but still reflecting the brilliant sun in each tiny scale. I took out my lunch, threw away the sandwich, and stashed as many fish as I could fit into the Ziploc bag. Had they been alive, I would have been carrying nearly $400 worth of fish; dead, they were worth nothing. I didn't care. I took them home and kept them tucked away for three months, behind the ice trays and TV dinners, and took them out late at night to look at them. Bathed in freezer light, they were like life-giving stones, alien and cold. When Mom found them, their color had finally faded, and she flushed them down the toilet.
The store remains vacant, but the roof is sturdy, and my vantage point is good. From up here I can see down into the restaurant, beyond the gaudy-lettered window, which reads BARRY ALLEN'S though the owners are a Vietnamese couple by the name of Ngoc-Tran. "They probably needed something catchier, for business purposes," Luc said, explaining why they used the name. "Koreans do it all the time."
So do superheroes.
The last of the afternoon regulars finally leaves, and my mother takes a cigarette break at a corner booth. She stares out at the street, taking greedy drags of a Marlboro. She exhales smoke against the window, and it dances before her face like some sort of phantom lover that I can see too. I often catch my mother in these moments, a sad woman in pink, looking into nothing, waiting. "That's how I met your father," she once confessed in a stupor. She was one of Manila Rosie's Beauties, the best dancing girls the Navy boys could find in the city. "And I was your daddy's favorite," she said. After a two-week courtship he proposed to my mother, promising her citizenship in the U.S.A. "United Stars of America" is what she called it. I have had longing dreams about this incarnation of my mother, seeing her asleep and afloat in outer space, the constellations reforming themselves around her. I try to locate this part of her in myself, to isolate it from all the other stuff.
Then suddenly, from nowhere, a man in a uniform invades the picture. He sits down at her booth, lights my mother another cigarette, lights his own. They begin to talk. I don't need to hear what they're saying; I can read the words, frame by frame. My mother laughs, her hand over her breast, as if she is gasping for air. She is weakening.
Oh, stop! You're too much, do you know that? she says, giggling.
He tosses his head back, his shoulders bouncing up and down, up and down, laughing at his own jokes with a villain's arrogance. Then he grabs my mother's hand and brings it close to his face. He is acquainting himself with my mother's biology, remembering the texture of her skin, her scent. My little tropical gardenia, he says to her. But his thoughts betray him. So easy bubbles from his head. This bitch will be so easy.
I'm too far and high up above. There's no way to warn her in time, no hope for a last-minute rescue.
HAVING DISCUSSED the Green Lantern's shift in crime-fighting focus, this paper will now examine its consequences. In 1976 the Green Lantern returns to the stars. This is a difficult time for him. Realizing that he is unable to wipe out the societal ills of the era, he falters in his ability to wield the power ring. He is summoned to Oa, where the Guardians put him on trial and consider finding a replacement. The following dialogue is an excerpt from that trial:
"Perhaps Abin Sur was mistaken in selecting you, Hal Jordan."
"Please, Guardians. Allow me to prove myself worthy of the ring. Allow me to be your champion once more."
HE world jerks to a stop, and my pencil slips from my hands. I pick it up from the littered bus floor. "Brake more gently next time, please!" I shout to the bus driver. Baldie shoots me a look from his extended rearview mirror.
He does it again at the next stop. "Hey!" I rise from my seat. "I said brake more gently next time!" I walk toward the front. "Did you hear me?" Baldie ignores me and slams on the brakes at the light. I keep him in my eye as I fight gravity, but I lose my footing; I fall. Just as quickly I'm up again, and I almost manage to dig the point of my pencil into his arm, but two of his henchmen passengers force me off before I can make contact with his skin. I walk the rest of the way home against traffic so loud that it smothers and suffocates the battle cries in my head.
HEN I call, Luc's grandmother picks up the phone. I don't bother identifying myself; she always drops the receiver at the sound of my voice, and I have to wait two or three minutes until Luc finds out it's for him. To his grandmother, I'm The Filipino, the mutant friend who is too different for her to speak with, too weird to be allowed to come over.
Luc finally picks up, and I tell him what happened. "Just breathe for a sec," he says, competing with loud kitchen noises in the background. "It'll be fine."
"He had to be stopped," I explain. "He's putting other lives at risk. Better the driver die than a busload of innocents." If I have to be the one to do it, then I'll do it.
Luc understands the good of my intentions and says so. "But it's over now. You kept all those passengers safe."
Then Luc says he's sorry but he has to go, his mother needs to call his aunt about a Korean variety show on cable. "No problemo," I say, "and thanks again. Old chum." I wait for the click on his end and then I hang up.
With my mother at the restaurant, I have time to work in my lab. I can construct bombs and explosives, but these require the proper chemicals and materials, and I can use the bathroom for only so many hours in a day before my mother becomes suspicious. When she pounds on the door, asking what I am doing, I tell her nothing, to please give me five or ten minutes. She guesses that I am masturbating and tells me to stop. I tell her okay.
My favorite weapon is my slingshot. I stole it from a high-quality sporting-goods store six months back: lightweight, aerodynamic, potential of elasticity twenty times as great as the average sling. It angers me how a lesser comic like Dennis the Menace has reduced the slingshot to a mischief-making toy kept in a child's back pocket. People forget that David killed Goliath with a slingshot. With the proper ammunition I could kill from afar too.
But I am at work on what I hope will be the greatest addition to my arsenal. Centuries ago Filipino warriors created the yo-yo as a weapon, emitting from their hands stone-heavy objects at the ends of twenty-foot-long ropes. They learned to hunt with it, to kill. Eventually the yo-yo immigrated to America. The story goes that a traveling salesman named Duncan saw one and introduced it to the country as a new hobby, a toy to pass the time.
I intend to get it back.
I will fuse together my native ingenuity with modern technology to create a weapon of deadly hybridity. My yo-yo will be of marble, attached to string at least fifty feet long, so that even from rooftops I can stun my enemies far, far below. My father, too, had weapons. In the framed photo my mother keeps on her bureau, he holds a rifle in one hand, my mother in the other.
Suddenly I hear movement in the apartment. "Come out here!" my mother shouts, pounding on the bathroom door. "Come out and meet my new friend!"
"You're early! Hold on a sec!" I stash everything behind the toilet paper under the sink, hiding it next to the Windex and Lysol.
I open the door and find my mother standing before me, her head resting dreamily on his arm. "Honey," she says, smiling at me, "this is Alex. He's our mailman. We met today at the restaurant."
At least six feet tall, Lex towers over my mother and over me. He is well-postured, undoubtedly strong and agile. His uniform shows a badge of a bald eagle, and another badge tells me that he has proudly delivered U.S. mail for five years. "Hey, champ," he says. He fixes his eyes, as blue and sharp as lasers, on me. Five milky-white fingers reach out.
Armed with addresses and zip codes, Lex can track down anyone, anywhere. If my mother and I were to escape, he could follow the trail of our forwarding address to find us. It's the extra sense, the instinct, of a hunter.
But I accept his challenge and take his hand. I tilt my head down just a bit, so that my glasses slide down the bridge of my nose. "Nice to meet you," I say with a smile. Lex does a double take at my nonmatching eyes. Already I have the upper hand.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.