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The thing that broke your heart was, he could still fly. Nothing else to call it. There he was in those silly clothes, going wherever he pleased and not falling, as if gravity were just some tired social pretense and he’d grown too old to bother. But it wasn’t the same.
“Kind of flying,” some people said, which turned everyone from the copy desk stone-faced with rage.
“He is either flying or not flying,” they’d tell you, grinding their teeth. “There is no kind of flying, or sort of flying, because That. Would Make. No Sense. He moves through the air, under his own power, with nothing supporting him. He is flying. Now. Where’s that rewrite?”
“Floating,” other people would say, and I tried that one on for a while myself.
“Nice try,” the copy editors said. “He moves against the wind.” Two days after they told me that, I looked out my office window and saw him moving uptown against a March gale, yellow cape kicking and thrashing behind him, with rain drumming the windows and Herald Square looking like a faded archival photo of itself. Just watching him made me want an extra pair of socks, but he didn’t seem bothered, and it was true. The headwind didn’t make him any slower.
“Okay then, gliding,” some people answered, mad now and hating to give up an argument. “He doesn’t fly. He glides.”
“Were you not listening about the wind? Also, gliders gradually lose altitude. I think we can all agree that isn’t happening.”
“I don’t know what you call it,” a few die-hards muttered on their way out, “but I know that it isn’t flying.”
“Oh,” the copy editors said, “like you could do better.”
So, flies, flying, and flew were still official Herald-Tribune usage. But it was obviously different. He didn’t have the speed, a tenth the speed, that he used to. Or for some reason, he wasn’t using it. It was hard to know. In the paper, we used euphemisms like deliberate and stately. Worse, he seemed stuck at one altitude, drifting along around the level of a sixth-story window. He never got any higher. Even stranger, once you thought about it, was that he never got any lower. You’d never see him at streetlight level. You’d never see him land. He could fly about six stories above the ground, and as far as anybody could tell, that was it. He would gradually drift sideways above the traffic, so that he started flying above one sidewalk, and seven or eight blocks later, he’d wind up over the other. People would see him zigzagging toward Brooklyn across the river or looping erratically over the park. After a while, you got used to it. There he was, you know? It didn’t seem so bad. You’d see him over the Sheep Meadows on a summer night, when you could barely make him out against the sky, over Riverside Drive on a clear autumn afternoon with the leaves riveting against the blue. And you wouldn’t think about how things used to be.
It was the tourists who made you remember. Especially the ones who’d seen him in the old days. You’d be walking down the avenue and not notice him above you until you saw someone from out of town looking up, and then you saw it happening in their face, the way it had once happened to you. You would see them looking at what he was now and what he had once been, all in an instant, and see them losing a piece of something they’d treasured. And then other things that you had tidied away in their own private box would be out there in public at lunch hour, with no way of putting them back for the rest of that day. You’d drop your eyes to the pavement and shuffle along to wherever you thought you were going. You never looked up, and the tourists never said anything. They didn’t have to.
People asked me what was going on because I had reported on him before. I didn’t know, but no one else at the paper did either. There was, like, no authority. Nobody at the Times knew, or the Post, and everyone at the Daily News was just making shit up. The question was impossible to report; no one with a phone number had any facts. If you called some physicist at Columbia, she would say, “We don’t know why he’s been flying differently. We’ve never understood why he was flying.”
“But you admit there’s been a change,” I said.
“Recent observations have been less impressive than some things we’ve seen in the past,” the professor said, “but still completely impossible.”
I even broke down and phoned the cultists on 39th Street, though talking to them has never led to much good. Their spokesman said, “The divine is fundamentally a mystery.”
“You’re the ones always talking about him being the golden transcendent living god. If you don’t know what’s wrong with him, who does?”
“Faith is predicated on not understanding, Mr. Korzenowski.”
“Thanks,” I said, and hung up. Then I had to write Representatives of the Church of the Golden Crusade (which has never been endorsed by the person popularly known as The Golden Crusader) declined to speculate blah blah blah. And, anyway, that story got spiked.
Still, I think it’s a problem for them, the believers. Some of them have broken away, and one splinter group is violent. Three members got arrested driving a truck bomb, to force him to show his full powers again, I think. But the truck’s electrical system suddenly died in the middle of a left turn, just where the cops were waiting.
“Who you think told us where to pick you up?” one of the cops asked. “Don’t you get it? He don’t wanna be your god.”
“I get that he’s saved more unbelievers’ lives,” the chief bomb-maker said. “How many miracles do you have to see?”
After the crazies were taken away, that same cop asked me, “You really think this was him?”
I said, “The car battery just shorted, right, at the perfect moment? Still only one person who can do that.”
“I guess,” the patrolman said, chewing his lip. He looked up at the dark slow silhouette of the Crusader, half a block away. “There’s only one person who can do that, either, and now even he sucks at it.”
Some people denied that it was still him. They’d say, Look how his costume has changed. But I don’t think it did. People just got a better look at it. All those competing Halloween-rental versions turned out not to be quite right. People argued about why, but it made perfect sense. Nobody had ever paid attention to those things because nobody had gotten a chance.
Look: it used to be you saw him for two heartbeats in some liquor store or alley about half a second after you had seen that someone had a gun and by the time the thought reached your brain that maybe you were about to die you weren’t because he’d been there and now he was gone. There wasn’t time for fashion critiques. You were just happy to be standing there. Or he came by you at his old devil’s speed, and it was a green and yellow blur and rush of wind and by the time your coffee finished spilling he was somewhere else. There wasn’t time to notice just what shade of green the leotards were, or what was on his feet, or exactly how many lightning bolts were in the wreath on his chest. Go back and read the newspapers’ descriptions of him from the first year or two. I have. People had no idea what they were looking at. And the descriptions in the police reports were worse.
Now, though, you could get a good look at him. He wouldn’t be saving someone at that particular moment, not most of the time. He’d be cruising, or patrolling. And sooner or later, it hit you: that guy is wearing bright green tights at three in the afternoon. There are those weird slipper-like things sewn into the costume, with the rubber soles, and the cape has that faintly rubbery look, too, so in certain lights it seems like vinyl. There’s probably a practical reason for that, but still, it looks like he made it from his shower curtain. And for whatever reason, the rumors about him started to change. Suddenly people said it was bad luck to be near him in the rain, that his powers attracted lightning and it was dangerous. Or you would hear that he disrupted cell phone service. Nobody could tell you where they heard that first. But one day, it was something everyone had heard, and now he gets blamed for every dropped call from Forest Hills to Jersey.
The silver lining, for the first week or two, was that it got much easier to take his picture. Someone told me that there have been five times as many clear photos taken of him in the last six months than in the previous thirty years combined. But those pictures don’t even rate the front of the metro page now. You’ve seen them. They’re on posters and billboards and bus signs. If he objects, he hasn’t shown it. But I find it strange, seeing him plastered on construction fencing or cab roofs. It’s like he’s turned into some local celebrity, a guy with a morning show on channel whatever. He may be a complete lunatic, but at least he’s never been a celebrity. Famous, sure, and more than famous, but never your everyday New York fame.
After a few weeks getting nowhere, I pitched my bosses another angle: if he never flew any lower than the sixth floor, where did he get into the airstream? Were there certain places he used, where he knew he could get to the sixth floor and then step or leap or whatever he did to start flying? But that pitch brought up issues: what if we were leaving him open to someone who wanted to hurt him, or rubbernecking bystanders started obstructing his starting places, or the invasion of privacy, or whatever it was, stopped him from going out any more? Would the paper be liable if he stopped helping in emergencies? Would we just get sued forever until we died? I was supposed to set up a conversation with the legal department, but called it off because I realized that, honestly, I didn’t want to know.
One day, I’m in the corner store getting milk. The first customer’s a senior citizen searching her pockets for a nickel. Some kind of hipster entrepreneur is ahead of me in line, bleating into his phone: shoes and jacket straight from Fifth Avenue, narrow jeans and vintage-store shirt direct from the fastest-gentrifying block of Queens. The longer the quest for exact change goes on, the louder the hipsterpreneur jabbers about mindshare and ecotunity, and right around the moment when not learning what those words mean becomes the central goal in my life, his cell phone dies. He pokes at it, curses it, waves it through the air, and finally turns around to talk to me.
“Guess the freak in tights is around, huh? Captain freaking Midrise. Must be a kitten in a tree.” He’s looking for eye contact. I’m not looking to give any. When he gets no response, he turns away and speaks louder to no one in particular. “Probably the costume. No one can make a phone call because some creep enjoys vinyl shorts.” By now, Exact Change Lady is making her way out to the sidewalk, but Phone Guy’s not stepping forward. He’s just leaving that space empty for his wit and charm to fill. The owner of the store’s forced to wait and listen. She begins ringing up the guy’s Vitamin Water and sea-salt potato chips and lets out something in Spanish under her breath.
She stops, looking at the guy and looking at me, trying to see if either of us had understood. Then her eyes steady, and she jabs at her register. Green letters spell VOID.
“Store is closed,” she tells the guy. “I’m dead.”
He hasn’t been paying attention, but the stopped sale pokes a hole in his self-amusement. “What’s the hold up?”
“That man who interrupts your big phone call? He pulled me out of the East River. If he’s not around to interrupt your phone, I’m not around to take your money. Store is closed.” She folded her arms.
“Hey” he said. “I’ve got a right …”
Her palm slapped the counter with a sound like a cleaver splitting meat. “I was three feet underwater,” she said. “Three feet!” She gives him a backhand wave. “Go play with your phone.”
Now Phone Guy has begun to realize that this is actually happening to him and is starting to feel outraged by it. “Oh yeah? Well, I’m a customer.”
There’s a loud rip. She empties the bag of chips on his shoes. She opens the Vitamin Water and begins splashing him with it, raising the bottle up to her shoulder like a spear and shaking it back and forth. He’s wiping his jacket and complaining when the penny tray hails down on him. One stray coin bounces off my arm. He looks down at his wet clothes and freshly-salted wingtips, holding one hand to a place on his scalp where a penny had taken a hard bounce.
“I’m never buying anything from you again,” he said on his way out.
“Don’t forget it.” She watched the door shut behind him and waited until he’d disappeared. She turned back to me with a big exhale and roll of the eyes. What are you gonna do? I could only shrug and raise my palms in answer.
“I shouldn’t get so mad,” she said as she rang up my milk and bread. “They talk and talk about that man after everything he did for people. I just can’t take it sometimes.”
“It’s terrible,” I said. Her face softened into a smile, as if I had said exactly the thing she had been searching for.
“Yes,” she said. “So terrible.” She locked onto my eyes, candid and warm, certain that we understood each other. When she returned my change, she took my hand between hers and kept it there. “I don’t believe that thing they say,” she said with intense conviction. “I don’t believe he’s dying.”
“No,” I said, feeling less conviction than I’d ever had. “No. Of course not.”
The next month, I went to interview a friend who’d been in that high-rise fire downtown, the eight-alarm thing. She worked on the twenty-second floor and had gotten cut off. Everyone else had evacuated, and the firemen couldn’t get past the flames on twelve. So, my friend is looking around this office where she’s worked six years without liking it, looking at her stupid cubicle and thinking, “Oh. So, this is it.” She can see her own obituary in the next day’s paper, maybe three sentences if she were lucky. She was wondering if I’d be the one who wrote it.
So, she lies down near the floor to get under the smoke, not even sure if she wants to drag this out longer. She told me that the silence was eerie, like she was in a bubble. Outside were the crowds and the sirens and the bullhorns, all of the traffic and madness that was no good to her whatsoever, and inside the building was mostly silence. All the dull, desperate roar of an office building, just shut off. She’s actually trying to listen for the fire, the malevolent whisper of it, creeping higher toward her. And every so often she hears some ominous, inexplicable noise far below. Then there’s a loud, metallic thump. She doesn’t know what it is. Maybe one of the fire doors downstairs opening, maybe something important collapsing onto something crucial, but if it was someone coming through the fire door, why wasn’t there the whole tumult from outside? Why wasn’t there any fireman noise, with their shouting and radios and galloping boots?
Then, after a while, she hears footsteps. Someone climbing the steps of the emergency stairs, up past the whole conflagration on floors twelve through fourteen. Not a troop of firemen. One set of steps. And what seemed both scary and magical at the same time, not rushing. Just a tired pair of feet climbing the stairs, like someone coming upstairs to their walkup after a hard day. So, she puts her head down closer to the floor, abrades her cheek against the awful carpet, and screws her eyes closer shut because she’s clearly inhaled the smoke already and is out of her mind hallucinating. And she didn’t want to die, for reasons she can no longer explain, while she was stuck in an illusion.
And the hallucinatory tired-repairman footsteps keep plodding closer and clearer, tump tump tump, and she hears a creaking maybe a floor or two below, and then, for no real reason at all, the steel door of the stairwell swings open, and somebody’s clodhopping around the office. “Hello?” the voice says, a bit weary, and maybe, she thought only later, petulant. “Anybody?”
It’s him, of course. His cape was charred and sooty, she said, there were ashes all over his face and the mask. His costume smelled like fire damage, like some books that she’d bought from a salvage store in college that had kept their acid smell forever. “Hello?” he said. “Are you ready to come out?”
So, he’d walked up from the sixth floor because he couldn’t fly any higher. Broke a window to get in, walked up through the fire unharmed. I worked out later that he’d been in there about twelve minutes, just patiently climbing all of the steps. The firemen downstairs had seen him go in, not seen him come out, figured that they had seen the last adventure of the Golden Crusader and that we would have to put up a memorial on the site of the building. But there he was, up on the twenty-second floor with my friend, ever so slightly winded.
“Hello,” he said. “It’s Cynthia, isn’t it?” She had never met him. I’ve bumped into him maybe three times, and now four, and always came away with the impression that he knew exactly who I was. It can be strange. “I thought we might leave the building through your boss’s office, if you think she won’t mind.” And he gave a little cough at that, a quarter of a hack, as if the smoke had really gotten to him a little or as if that were all the chuckle he could manage for himself.
He reached up, stretching on his tiptoes toward the ceiling lights, and as his fingers neared them, they came on again, briefly and splendidly brighter than ever before, but quickly returning to normal and then to something less, growing ever slightly dimmer as whatever spark he had lent them trickled away.
Then he takes Cynthia by the hand, lifts her up, is careful to hold onto her in places where she won’t feel embarrassed. They walk over to the boss’s office, and he says. “Maybe you want to stand outside with the door closed for a minute. What I have to do next isn’t that hard, but it’s awkward.” So then he walks into the corner office, shuts the door, starts moving furniture. He stacks a bunch of tall steel filing cabinets, filled with God knows what insurance memorabilia, against one wall. It’s something nobody else could do, but somehow not impressive. Like he’s unloading boxes from a truck. He unplugs a standing lamp and moves it out of the way. Then he cups the globe of the lamp with one hand and fills it with dazzling light before it fades to its usual wattage and slowly dies away. He picks up the boss’s desk, holding it at one end and raising the other above the level of his shoulders. He slips his grip a little, gets it back. “This is a little more awkward than I’d like it to be,” he says through the door, a little hoarse when he had to raise his voice. “Bear with me for a minute or two.” And then he swings the desk at the big boss lady’s window three times, making a big crack, and the desk slips in his hands again and he gets it back and he takes four or five more swings, dogged, breathing heavy, but swinging a little harder and hitting a little cleaner every time, like finding his rhythm. When the reinforced glass breaks open, he kicks and knocks out what’s left, wrapping the charred cape around his hands.
“Okay,” he says to Cynthia. “You can come in now. Careful of the glass.” In she steps, through the rubble of her terrible boss’s career, and the Crusader is shaking his cape out the window, getting rid of the little bits of glass so he can wrap it around her. The office has faded to a brownout dusk, and Cynthia can see the dimming filament in the unplugged lamp. “Okay,” he says again. “I’m going to pick you up and turn you at an angle, so we can fit out the window. Then it’s mostly going to be simple. Are you afraid of heights?”
Cynthia says yes.
“Me, too. Well. This won’t be fun, but you definitely can’t go down those stairs. Okay.”
He hoists her up in his arms, laying her flat out like Scarlett O’Hara, wrapped in the burned yellow cape. And he steps out onto the window ledge, angling her so she’s parallel to the building. “Okay, Cynthia. Here goes. It’s all right to be scared.” Cynthia isn’t asking permission.
Then he hops up a little, barely anything, like he’s tried to take a step up an invisible staircase and missed it. And then they fall. They plummet. Straight down, sickeningly fast. Cynthia is screaming, her stomach has been left three stories up, she screams until there’s no air left. He slides down, as if defeated, so that he is underneath her bent like an old reclining chair. And they keep falling.
And then they stop.
Cynthia couldn’t explain it later, except to say it was like hitting a cushion, some inflated air mattress or something with no vinyl part. But that wasn’t quite it, according to her. They were falling straight down, faster and faster and faster like high school physics says, and then they were floating there, drifting gently to the left and then diagonally to the right. There was no jerk, no feeling of stopped momentum. They had reached the sixth floor, and she was tight in his arms with him underneath her. She turned her head and saw the building’s windows, saw a fireman running upwards without noticing them, his helmet disappearing and then his ax and then his coat and then his boots.
“It’s pretty much straightforward from here,” the Crusader said. “Sorry I couldn’t make it a little easier on you.”
They drifted along over Broadway, down toward the West Side, and they zagged a bit and zigged a bit. He couldn’t steer too well, but it seemed he could maneuver with patience, that he could get them where they were going. He was breathing through his mouth a little, doing a kind of hoarse, tuneless whistle. After a few blocks, they found a rooftop at their level, and the paramedics were already waiting with two assistant fire chiefs and a helicopter. Like they’d just staked out a building near the emergency with a roof the correct height and gone there.
“She doesn’t need the chopper,” he tells them. “She has some smoke inhalation, and she’s in shock. But careful with the meds cause she’s got a blockage starting in the left ventricle and she’s already taking some other things,” and he rattles off all of Cynthia’s current prescriptions. The paramedics write it down.
“Can we give you a lift?” the copter pilot asks, but the Crusader half waves, thanks and dismissal wrapped around each other as he drifts off the building toward the Hudson. Cynthia thinks he says, “I’ll get along,” but it’s not so clear and his face is already turned away.
They take her down in the elevator and put her in an ambulance. She gets released the next morning with a cardiology appointment. Two weeks later, an angioplasty, the blockage growing just where the Crusader had said, and the cardiologists saying those things they always say about how good it was to catch this in time. She goes back for occasional tests. Everything is fine, except she has trouble sleeping.
“What freaks me out,” she told me, “is, well, first I was weirded out by the prescriptions thing. But a week or two later, I’m like, ‘How did he know my name was Cynthia?’”
“It is weird. He’s done that to me a couple of times.”
“Well, but you write for the paper,” she said, although that doesn’t really make sense.
In the end, someone else wrote the Sunday feature on him. I read the first half and put it down, but then I had to go back and finish it. It used phrases like “technically flying” and “now proceeds through the air at a more andante tempo.” It didn’t get better. I was angry with the job they’d done, and angry that I hadn’t done the piece better myself, but not sure how I would have, or should have, written it.
Then one day, I went up to the roof of my building to think, and there he was, sitting on the edge of the roof, cupping a cigarette and looking into Brooklyn’s middle distance. He put the cigarette in his mouth, turned his head, and gave me a quick sketch of a wave before returning to his scrutiny of the brownstones across the street. In a way, I should have been expecting it. It’s a five-story building.
“Hiya, Conrad,” he said as I got closer. “How’ve you been?”
The slipper-like rubber soles were dangling out over the Center Slope, and he had bunched up his cape beside him on the roof’s cornice, as if to keep it from getting dirty. Next to that, he had an old public-broadcasting-pledge-drive tote-bag, lumpenly filled with things I tried not to look at. Sunshine and years had bleached the red from the WNYC logo.
“Doing all right,” I said. It felt strange to stand while he was sitting, but I couldn’t bring myself to sit on the cornice. The closer I got to the edge of the roof, the more clearly I could picture myself falling headfirst onto the corner of Fifth and 5th. So, I settled for a crouching squat a few feet to his left and tried not to look at the bag.
I said, “I’m sorry about that Sunday magazine piece.”
“It’s okay, Connie. I can read the byline. And I heard you pitched something different.”
“Well, I hear things. I hope I don’t have to say more than that.” He reached back and to his right, carefully tapping his cigarette ash onto the roof rather than letting it fall onto the sidewalk below. He cupped the cigarette in his hand again, protecting it from the breeze.
“I had no idea you smoked.”
“Just picked it up, really. Seemed like it couldn’t hurt.” He fished in the tote bag and came out with a gold wristwatch, decades old but well cared for, the kind of watch your grandparents might have given your father. He squinted at the watch’s face and set it beside him on the bunched-up cape. “Anyhow, I can quit whenever I want. One of my secret powers.”
He had dislodged some of the clothes in his tote bag so that I could see a stretch of striped tie (navy blue and forest green), and some gray fabric that likely belonged to a folded suit. Being curious about him was my job but looking at his street clothes seemed like an invasion.
“What’s been wrong?” I heard myself ask. “I mean, lately.”
He shrugged, getting his head into it with his shoulders. “Same as always. I have these guilt issues, and this kind of do-gooder complex. Also, I wear strange clothes in public, but it’s not like a compulsive thing. It’s just for work.”
“Are you—do you need a rest?”
“Maybe better to say, I’m catching a breath.” He put the wristwatch on over one of his rubberized gloves. The sounds of the evening street below were in the air around us, the voices and horns and broken music, the grumbling trucks and shushing trees.
“Is it, I don’t know, is there something interfering with your powers? Like some chemical or radiation or something?”
“Like in the comic books? Like, is there Kryptonite?”
“Yeah. I guess.”
“I sure hope not.” He nodded, like he was thinking about it, looking out at the glowering stub end of the sunset. “If there were, I don’t know what it would be.”
“Is there anything we can do to help?”
“If I ever fall out of the sky, probably I’ll need a ride someplace.”
“We’ve all been so worried,” I said. “Nobody knows what to do.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way.” He tilted his chin back to gaze into some further distance, his shoulders stiffer now. “You worrying about me is not the point. I can still be helpful. For some things. What I have is still enough.”
“What if it’s not?”
“Then I’ll have a decision to make.” The wind had extinguished his cigarette and he flicked it out into the air, a long arc over the street and three rows of buildings beyond. “But I’ve taken up enough of your time. Linda’s waiting for you.” He began reorganizing the contents of the faded tote bag, taking out a blue dress shirt with fraying French cuffs, and then a shiny gray suit with a silk lining, before carefully refolding them. He took out a pair of books from the public library and put them on top of the folded clothes as weights. I caught part of one title and all of the other: The Brothers Karamazov and the Grounding for the Metaphysics of something. I stood, with the conversation finished and nothing to do but stand and not figure out how to say goodbye.
“It might be a philosophical thing,” he said unexpectedly, more or less into the tote bag. “If I’m giving you a straight answer. You’re a reporter and, and, I don’t know. I’ve always figured you for an honest person.” The sun was gone and the light left after it was quietly fading from the sky. I could see him, but all the colors were weaker.
“A failure to choose any destiny,” he said. “A refusal to embrace my will wholeheartedly or wholeheartedly renounce it. Unwilling to take the world as it is, don’t trust myself to make it in my own image.” He fished into the tote bag once more but did not seem to have any errand there. “And the truth is, my wife. My wife has not been well.”
“Thank you.” He straightened and offered his hand. His handshake was politely firm.
I said, “Be safe.”
He clapped my shoulder, lightly.
Then he stepped off the edge of the roof, the public-broadcasting tote bag looped around one wrist. He clumsily got to his hands and knees and crawled, in a sort of arthritic pantomime, until his body stretched into an unhurried, aerial swim. Then he was drifting away toward the east, dissolving from view into the warm gray of dusk. A few kids playing in the street looked up, idly, and waved or jeered. He was headed further into the outer boroughs, maybe out to Long Island. He wandered diagonally toward the opposite sidewalk and began drifting back toward the center of the street. The kids turned back to their sidewalk games, bored with his incremental progress. I watched until he was lost to sight, and for some time after. He wavered and wandered but kept correcting his course, and when I saw him last he was moving doggedly east, making his way toward the dark place where the next sun would rise.