hero just keeps on stitching
I'm sorry." Finn leaned forward with a flat, hard twinkle in
his mad little rhino eyes. It was a look with which we were all
very familiar, his "don't even embarrass yourself" look
that knew he knew exactly what he was talking about.
Finn always took off his ballcap when he ate, and
the freshly shaven sides of his wavy, dirty-blond '80s mohawk gleamed
gray under the track lights in the pub. Outside and above us, midtown
Manhattan ground on at light speed, a world away. "Being a
hero does not just mean being an ordinary person in extraordinary
Beside him, Jim shook his head, slowly sucking on his bottomless
cup of coffee. "What about all those people on Flight 93?"
He looked around at us for confirmation. "They were just businessmen
and shit, and they all got up and got together, just like the hostages
in 'Dreamcatcher.' They managed to ..."
"Jim." Finn looked at him patiently. "No one survived
"So how does that relate to not being a hero?"
"I'm not saying they weren't heroes," Finn said. He leaned
forward at the table and sliced a hunk from his Scotch egg with
a knife and fork, hunting for the pepper. "Just that it was
convention. It was a tragedy. In a tragedy, the hero always dies.
It was real life. They died."
I leaned in and wordlessly handed him the pepper. I was in a foul
mood, and not really paying attention to the banter, just sucking
down beer after beer and playing with an old music sample on my
PalmPilot. Finn kept looking up every time I mis-tapped and the
little bell rang.
"Here we go back to conventions again." Jim stroked his
black Sancho Panza goatee and studied his coffee as though it were
a Magic Eight-Ball. The big Cockney pubman swooped by the table
and refilled it without breaking stride. We all looked up at him
at the same time.
" 'eroes is the 'ottest fing going." The pubman sounded
like every folk album Billy Bragg ever did. I
was actually paying attention now. The carpet of stubble on his
face undulated like the skin of a puppet when he spoke, and his
eyes gave off a simple working-class shrug. I looked down at the
floor yep, old Doc Marten bovver-boots, back when Docs still
meant blue collar.
He shifted the steaming pot of coffee from left hand to right.
"You'll not find a better arse to
sell ad space on than a hero's, mate. That's the real tragedy. Look
a' them firemen."
"Look at Jesus," I muttered. Finn shot me a warning glance,
but the pubman just shrugged.
"Right. Anyone who really finks too far ahead. The state lets
'em do their fing for a while, right, then
shoots 'em just before they do any real damage to the hegemony.
By that time, someone's written up their fake memoirs and the papers
remember what vey wish, so you have Che Guevara sellin' soda pop
and Rage Against the Machine albums next spring. Lo and behold."
He looked to his right, whispered "Shite," and walked
quickly back down to a forgotten drink order at the opposite corner
of the bar.
"So, anyway," Jim began again. I just then noticed Jim's
shirt, the black one he'd brought from Pennsylvania with the Ten
Commandments of Beer on it. He reached for a piece of Finn's egg,
and his hand was most righteously slapped away. I turned my head
to hide the snort of laughter.
"Fuck you." Jim had seen it anyway. He smiled. "You're
walkin' your sorry ass home. But, naw, man, for real ... can you
be a hero without being a celebrity? Or can you separate the two?"
"Oh, that can of worms is a whole bait shop." I looked
up from the nipple on my pint of Guinness.
"For that matter, do all true heroic acts have to end in tragedy?
What about, like ..." I frowned, shutting off my PalmPilot
in front of me. "... like that movie 'Amelie,' just kind of
move behind the scenes, and ..."
"But that's tragic, too," Jim pointed out. "You
never get validation for what you do, it ..."
"Karma." Finn had been waiting for that. "Why do
you need anyone else to tell you ..."
"No," said a dry, loud voice at the bar. "They do
it because it's what they're wired to do, because they can't do
skinny guy slumped at one corner of the bar sounded like he was
lecturing a roomful of headstrong teen-agers, but the street Zen
dripping through the spaces between his words was both weirdly familiar
and totally alien.
There was a bit of gray in his long ponytail, and more in the close-cropped
Vandyke cowcatcher at the prow of his angular jaw. His weird hazel
eyes glowed like the tunnels of twin MRIs, his arms in the button-down
workshirt were corded wire whips that looked too thin, somehow unnatural,
charged with slumbering lightning slow to rouse.
He picked up his half-empty mug of ale and made his way to where
we were with silent, padding insect stillness, taking the empty
seat at our polished cherrywood table for four.
"Where do you work?" Finn stroked his own forked goatee.
I was the odd man out for lack of beard. "I know I've seen
The stranger shrugged. "Around. I'm ..." The resistor
in his white smile cranked up the wattage. "... an artist.
I started out in photography, but now ..." He pursed his lips."Oh,
multimedia, you could say. Mostly stuff on the Web. You may have
seen my work ..."
He took a pull of beer and continued before I could ask for any
"My point is, heroes do what they do because they can't stop.
They hate themselves for it. It destroys the rest of their lives,
in the end. I don't even know who my heroes are. They're the anonymous
ones, on the news. But ... gah."
He smacked one hand on one fist. "Real heroism is a state
of mind, a code of behavior."
"Sure." Finn nodded. "Professionalism. Accountability.
Personal resp ..."
"Yes and no," the stranger shrugged. "I'm just on
my way home, but I couldn't help overhearing."
"Stay and have a beer with us," I offered. "I'm
enjoying your slant on this."
He sighed. "I'd like to."
Finn pressed him. "If you gotta catch a bus, man, Jim can
drive you." Jim's head swivelled toward Finn so fast that his
"I have to take prescription speed so I can work," the
stranger said. "Tonight's my night off, and when I crash, it's
generally for about two days."
Finn nodded instantly. "My cousin was narcoleptic. Sorry to
hear that, man. I ..."
The stranger looked away. "It doesn't really change much.
I just have to be more careful."
His voice wavered a little on the last word, and he almost leaned
forward as if to lay down with his face upon the table.
But some old pain straightened his spine and made him look around
at us all, even as we all got to our feet. The stranger waved us
"It's all right," he managed. "I've been self-contained
for a long time, children. See you around ..." There was a
wonderfully ironic attempt to hide his smile again. "Although
you might or might not
see me first."
"But ..." Jim had just been getting wound up. Finn looked
"The man needs his rest. Finish your beer and we'll go shoot
a game of pool like you were talkin' about. Ed ..." He grinned
wolfishly. "You can have winner."
But Finn was already talking to my back as I followed the stranger
out the door and up the stairs to the street, moving with the obsessive
speed of one who is unable to let go of a conversation without closure.
On the table sat the stranger's unfinished beer.
On the street, he turned to look at me, and I swallowed hard.
"What do you do, really?" I asked. "Do you have
"Look around you, man." He was not looking for a cab.
"Life is my gallery. It'll come to you." He
stepped further out onto the sidewalk.
"I will be back, don't worry. I'm just really crashing. Thank
you for the conversation, though. Good
conversation is a dead language to most people."
With that gaunt build and those hollow battlefield eyes, I'd wondered
if he had to start injecting his
meds and kept his arms covered because of track marks. Once he stretched
and looked around, though, he began rolling up his sleeves. I gasped
at how wrong I was.
He watched me watching, with the sad smile of one who has seen
all the reactions a thousand times.
"I just wanted to jump in and tell you what I know." He
pursed his lips. "As to my heroes ... I don't know their names,
but I think it was Wallace Stevens who said ... that you have to
be the author of your own authority. That's where it is."
I heard that, but I'd had to make myself listen.
His arms were twisted, rugose pink radiation sculptures, as fundamentally
wrong as the feelers of a
laboratory fruit fly coming out of its scarred vestigial eyes.Glimmering
ciliate hairs wavered on them like broken, ingrown guitar strings,
glowing with barbed-wire stigmata around strange stomas at his
wrists like tiny tracheotomies in throbbing varicose venipuncture.
I looked again at the shape of his wind-burned face beneath the
black ballcap, and the set of his
twinkling eyes. The dreamy smile never left him.
"Now you know." His horribly mutated arms swept before
him in a bow.
I swallowed back tears, hearing myself stammer out lines from an
"A line will take us hours, maybe, Yet if it does not deem
a moment's thought, Our stitching and unstitching has been naught."
it." He shrugged. "The hero just keeps on stitching. Good
night, man. Cheers."
His eyes snapped upward to a gargoyle at the cornice of the 11-story
insurance building across the street.
The hole in his right forearm made a sound like a phone book tearing
in half, and the stranger was gone like Erroll Flynn, climbing what
had come out of his arm with the skill and grace of a Forest Service
I watched him dwindle away to a black spot on the skyline. The
stuff that had come out of his arm fell against the rooftops, to
be washed away by the rain or swept off into the gutters by incurious
I walked back into the bar, and for the rest of the night spoke
not a word.