Jay slouched on a stool behind the counter of the 7-Eleven where he worked, pensively staring down at a 1970 fourteenth issue of The Silver Surfer Vol.1. He read through his favorite Marvel mashup while sipping on a sixteen-ounce Slurpee filled three quarters of the way with wild cherry and topped off with Coke. As Spider-Man and the Sky-rider of the Spaceways battled over a misunderstanding, a trucker with a grey and white STP twill mesh cap approached Jay’s counter. Eyes lifted over the pages of the comic ever so slightly, he saw the tall, beer-bellied man place down a cup of drip coffee and a cruller.
“I’ll take a carton of Kool’s and a two-dollar scratch-off while you’re at it,” the man said, pointing to the case of cigarettes behind Jay and exhaling a cloud of cheap whiskey in his direction.
The place already reeked of stale pizza, urine, and grease, but present company made that gas station smell like a homeless hostel. Jay cringed, the burn of whiskey breath forcing his eyes to squint. He folded the comic shut and rolled it into a cylinder, placing it into the back pocket of his acid-washed jeans. With the tinge of alcohol piercing the back of his throat, he lost his taste for the Slurpee and threw the rest of it into a trash can.
Cigarettes and lottery tickets were placed next to each other in a cabinet with reinforced glass doors, locked. Only Jay, his alternate, and his manager had a key—store policy dictating an attending employee must keep it on their person at all times. Jay preferred it dangling around his neck, so that he didn’t have to shuffle through his pockets every time someone craved another Nicotine fix or found a new hope in winning it big, which was a frequent occurrence in Palestine, Texas. Jay always found it odd that his employer treated these products as valuable items, but only dirty folk with little money ever bought them. No one dressed for success, driving anything more expensive than a Honda Civic, would never be caught dead buying those things. They also rarely filled up for gas or snacks at his store, either.
Jay pulled the necklace he made of fifty Mountain Dew pop-tabs over his head and gripped the key with his right hand. He opened the cabinet, retrieved the requested items, and threw them on the counter. “Forty-two thirty-seven,” Jay said, staring at the register, refusing to make eye contact.
The man pulled a fifty-dollar bill out of his wallet and handed it over, placing his hand on Jay’s wrist and winking at him. “Keep the change.” He grinned and exposed two rows of nearly rotted teeth.
Jay pulled his hand away and pressed a button on the register. With a loud ding, the cash drawer opened, and he slid the money into its slot. Hand pressed firmly against the drawer, he shut it and stepped back, pulling out his comic and continuing where he left off, sitting on his stool as if nothing happened.
The man folded his fingers into a fist and lifted it into the air, almost jumping over the counter when he noticed three other passersby in the store. He relaxed his posture and picked up the things he purchased, mumbled under his breath, “Eh, you’re not worth my time,” and walked away.
Like any other nerd with his nose in a comic, Jay was clueless to what actually took place and didn’t realize the man left in a huff.
The morning rush of people getting coffee and gas slowed down around nine, at which time he would get ten or twenty minutes of uninterrupted reading. He kept an old, tattered navy-blue backpack under the counter with enough stories to last long beyond his shift. There was no way he could get through them all. Not the way he read. He didn’t skim the pages like a poser, briefly admiring the art. Jay was much more disciplined, savoring every word, every character, every nuance. Each comic he owned, he read at least a hundred times. A loyal Stan Lee follower, he had most of it analyzed, memorized, and theorized. He could see exactly where the master of fiction was going in his storytelling.
Unfortunately, he could never read future issues to see if his theories were correct. All the comics he owned were inside his backpack. His dad’s collection of random Marvel adventures spanned from 1960 to 1972—Silver Surfer being an obvious fan favorite. Jay received them as a gift for his fourth birthday. His dad knelt on their linoleum kitchen floor and gave the backpack filled with comics to him. The next day, a mugger killed Jay’s dad on his way to work. Those comics were the only thing he inherited from him, that and a mom who took her husband’s passing very hard.
Jay took care of her. He always dreamed of going to art school and making his own comics one day, but she needed him more than the world needed his own personal stories. All the money he made went toward their living expenses. There was no extra income for new comics, let alone an independent future.
When Jay’s shift ended at three o’clock, he zipped up his bag and headed home, reading the 1963 twelfth issue of The Fantastic Four Vol 1.
Palestine was a town of reprobates. Though there were twelve thriving churches within city limits, they did little to curb the meth trade or back alley brothels. Jay walked home one day after school when he was a sophomore at Booker T. Washington High. A group of three drunk guys meandered toward him on the sidewalk and accused him of looking at them queerly. They beat him unconscious and stole all the money in his wallet. Since then, he walked with his head down, occupied by other worlds that seemed better than his own. It was safer.
At his apartment on Main Street, he put away the comic and held the bag in his left hand by the loop on top of it. Hand on the door handle, he turned it and walked inside.
“Mom!” he yelled, making a beeline for his room and dropping the bag on his bed. “Mom! Are you here?” He strolled down the hall and into the living room, but the apartment seemed empty. With furled eyebrows, he scratched the back of his neck. “Where could you be?” he muttered.
Eyes darting to the kitchen, he noticed the knife drawer open, the locking mechanism on it smashed to pieces. Jay ran to the bathroom, but his mom locked the door. “Mom! Mom!” he screamed, pounding his fist against the hollow-core wood. “Mom! Let me in!”
“Don’t come in,” a shrieking voice said from behind the door. “You can’t come in.”
Jay took a deep breath, knowing that yelling only riled her up. “Mom. It’s me. It’s Jay. Open the door and let me in.”
“No, it can’t be Jay. He’s gone.”
“We’ve been over this before. That’s Dad. I’m Jay, your son. Open the door and let’s talk.”
“No!” she yelled. “You’ve been sent to torture me. Stay away!”
“That’s it. I’m coming in.”
A loud screech reverberated off the bathroom walls and through the door. “Stay out!”
Jay leaned his shoulder against the door and took a deep breath, closing his eyes. One. Two. Three. His body slammed into the door and broke through, splintering the frame and tearing off a brass hinge.
His mom rocked back and forth on the floor between the toilet and the window with a bread knife in her hand, her red polka-dotted nightgown bunched around her knees. With her eyes closed tight, she screamed, “Get away from me!” She slashed the knife haphazardly through the air as if she was swatting flies.
Jay ambled toward her, making sure neither he nor his mom would get injured. Slow, pronounced steps. That would be how he deescalated the situation.
“I can hear you!” she cried, lunging toward the bathtub.
Jay quickly dodged her, his back erect against the sink. With a twist of his body, he positioned himself and jumped behind her, holding each arm and forcing the knife out of her hand. It hit the beige fiberglass tub with a thud. Violently squirming in his arms, she gave Jay a fight, but he held her with all of his might and, with the best of his abilities, began singing the lyrics to Abba’s Dancing Queen.
When he got to the part of “young and sweet, only seventeen”, she sang along and opened her eyes. Once they finished their duet, she looked behind her and saw her son. “Oh, Jay. It’s you. I’m so glad you’re here. There was a man trying to attack me, but you took care of him, didn’t you?”
Jay sighed. “Yeah. I took care of him for you.”
She settled into Jay’s arms like a cub in mama bear’s warm embrace. “You make everything better. Don’t go away again, okay?”
With soft strokes down her matted brown hair, Jay petted her. “Whatever you say, Mom.”
After a few minutes of silence, Jay let go and faced her. “How about we go to the living room and watch Mamma Mia? I know it’s your favorite.” Out of all the things he tried to do to help her, putting on that movie was the most effective. She never had a fit when that movie was playing. But it couldn’t be the sequel. Only the first one. The sequel made her judgmental, and that kind of attitude had the potential to spin her out of control, so they watched the first one, a lot.
It was the only movie they ever watched. Jay could quote it better than one of his comics. He tried to watch something else, like one of the Marvel films, but after an incident where she sliced her wrist with a razor, he left it alone, getting his Marvel movie fix from occasional screenings on the 7-Eleven office TV.
They had one television, and his mom refused to share, watching the musical film with as much luster as any other time she had seen it.
Jay picked up the knife and shoved it into the fold between his pants and stomach, flipping his faded black Led Zeppelin t-shirt over it to hide it from his mom. He led her into the living room, where they sat on the couch. She bounced with excitement while he fiddled with the remote to turn the TV and DVD player on.
“You ready?” he asked, turning toward her.
“Here we go again, sweetie.”
Thirty minutes into the film, the comfort of the airwaves conked her out on the armrest. While she loved the movie, it also acted as a kind of Vicodin for her, calming her nerves and sending her to sleep. They had no money for professional treatments, and even if they did, she would want none of it. That’s why Jay didn’t mind watching the movie repeatedly. Eventually, she would fall asleep and he could go to his room and spend more time with his comics.
Gently slipping a blanket over his mom, Jay headed to the kitchen to fix himself something to eat. He placed the bread knife in the sink to wash later. Walking to the cupboard, he pulled out a plate. Two handfuls of tortilla chips came from a bag sitting on the counter. Then, a sprinkling of cheddar cheese. Microwave for two minutes. Done. Poor man’s nachos.
The stale chips and crusty cheese reminded him of his high school cafeteria, where Mrs. Flynn served lunch. She was the only one in Palestine who treated him like a human. Whenever he wanted, she’d give him extra helpings of food, and she always raved how her nachos were a recipe passed down from her grandmother. If they were good enough for generations past, they were good enough for him.
He grabbed a cold can of Mountain Dew from the fridge and balanced the plate on top of it, rushing to his room. With one hand, he quietly opened and closed the door, setting his plate of nachos on the nightstand. The crack of the pop-tab opening let out a hiss in his hand. He took a sip and placed it next to his nachos. As the can hit the nightstand, a sound of sirens swept past his window—a regular event at all hours of the day.
The time was five thirty, and he was ready to dive into his first new Marvel issue in years. The library had recently opened their catalogue to include graphic novels and comics. Not wanting to waste a rare moment such as this at his workplace, he waited all day to get home, so he could finally continue the saga of The Fantastic Four, seeing what other dastardly plans Dr. Doom had in store for the heroes of New York.
In autumn sky, the sun dropped quickly. Jay turned on his Iron Man lamp and took a bite off his plate. Crunching the chips in his mouth, he pulled out a 1962 sixth issue of The Fantastic Four Vol 1. With another sip, he dove right in. It was a story he’d never read before, the next in the series after the fifth issue he had in his collection. A stupid smile splashed across his face and his eyes beamed with joy. He felt the way his mom must have felt every time she watched her movie. Back leaning against the headboard of his twin bed, he studied the pages for hours with an intense focus.
Late into the night, he fell asleep with an empty can laying on the bed next to his dropped hand and a grease stain on his jeans where he wiped off his fingers on his leg. Startled by a voice on the other side of the room, he shook his head. He couldn’t believe it. The one and only Stan Lee sat in a brown high-back chair with his left leg crossed over his right, holding a cup of 7-Eleven Gourmet Blend coffee in his hand, illuminated by what seemed to be a duplicate of his nightstand lamp.
“Mm, this coffee is excellent,” Stan said, bringing the cup to his lips. “Where do you guys get it?”
Jay rubbed his eyes and sat up straight. “Uh, from Japan, I think. Or at least that’s what my boss tells me.”
“Really? 7-Eleven dabbles in imported coffee?” Stan pursed his lips and nodded his head. “Interesting.”
“Um, sir. What are you doing in my room? I mean, what I mean to say. Ugh. You are Stan Lee. I can’t believe—”
“Let me stop you right there, champ, before you blow a gasket.” Chugging the rest of his coffee, he set it down on a nightstand identical to Jay’s. “First of all, I’m not here. I’m in your head.”
“What? I mean, I can see you in front of me.”
“Nevermind. I don’t have long, so I’ll get down to brass tax.”
“Where’re you going?”
Stan palmed his face and sighed. “Forget it. Face front, true believer!”
Eyes wide, Jay closed his trap and fiddled with his thumbs in his lap.
“That’s better. Now listen. Circumstances have trapped you in my world for far too long. It’s time to leave and create your own.” Hand reaching to the nightstand, he picked up a piece of paper with The Incredible Hulk drawn on it. “You are very good. With a bit of training, you could go far.”
“Oh no,” Jay said, waving his hand. “I could never leave. My mom needs me. Besides, those drawings are just doodles. It’s nothing serious.”
“Nothing serious, you say.” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. Son, with great power comes great responsibility. Do not underestimate the gift inside you.”
“What about my mom? She can’t take care of herself.”
“Luck’s a revolving door. You just need to know when it’s your time to walk through. But don’t wait long. You might miss your window of opportunity.”
“So, what should I do?”
“I don’t know. I’m a figment of your imagination. You could try contributing your own solutions.”
Jay raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“Huh. Nevermind.” Stan stood and handed the drawing to Jay. “Stop wasting your life in my world and live your own.” He extended his hand toward the lamp and turned it off, walking toward the door.
“Wait. Don’t leave. I have so many questions. Can’t you tell me anything else?”
Foot planted on the floor, Stan turned one-hundred-eighty degrees with his fist in the air and a big grin, shouting, “Excelsior!” He stood statuesque and vanished like the Avengers vaporizing into dust after the Thanos snap.
The room turned pitch black, and Jay woke up sweating. He immediately took out his drawing pad that he found in a dumpster and tirelessly scratched character designs until dawn.
The next few weeks, Jay picked up extra shifts to cover some art supplies. He also spent more time at the library, researching art schools close by. The closest one was the Art Institute of Dallas. Because of his living situation, he qualified for scholarships, too. He built up his portfolio for the day he had enough courage to apply. But there was still one problem. Mom.
He considered ways to move her into an apartment by campus, researching in-home nursing, but it was too expensive for them. Dreams required money, and he had none, not after paying bills. Maybe he could find a loan, but no one would want to invest in an adult man living with his mom, with no real promise to pay it back. If only he could work for Marvel. They would take care of him and his mom. But he had to go to school first. He was nowhere near good enough to compete with the elite pencil, ink, and color teams they hired.
He worked himself into hope, a dangerous commodity for a poor man. Dreaming belonged to optimists, and he was a realist, but it didn’t stop him from entertaining ideas of grandeur. Everyone in Palestine wanted a better life, no matter how disappointing it was to actually pursue one.
Jay kept his ideas close to his heart until one day he shared his love for art with his mom.
They sat on the couch watching Mamma Mia, when Jay got up and headed toward his room.
“Everything okay?” his mom asked.
“Yeah!” he yelled from the other side of the apartment. “I’m just getting something to show you.”
He came back with three sketch pads filled with color renditions of his favorite heroes and villains. Spittle forming in the corners of his mouth, Jay picked up the remote and pressed the pause button. Swallowing a gulp of saliva, he said, “I want to show you something, Mom.”
Her body froze. “What is it?”
“It’s all good, Mom,” he said in a reassuring tone, placing the drawings in her hands. “Look.”
She flipped through the pages. Iron Man. Silver Surfer. Susan Storm. Wolverine. Black Widow. Captain America. All of his favorites. In a hypnotic trance she continued to flip from one page to the next, saying not a single word, or giving any sort of expression about how she felt about them.
“Well, what do you think?”
“Is this what you’ve been doing with your extra time?”
“I do it in my free time, if that’s what you mean.”
With a high chin, she dropped Jay’s drawings on the floor.
“What’s wrong, Mom? Do you not like them?”
She crossed her arms. “And what do you hope to achieve by doing this?”
Picking up his pads off of the floor, he placed them on an end table. “Well, I guess I was hoping I could, well, maybe, go to art school.”
His mom shot to her feet. “Art school! Art school? You wanna leave me?”
Jay met her at eye level. “No. It’s not like that. You could come with me.”
“I’m fine right here,” she said, pacing in a circle and biting her nails.
“I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“Everyone leaves me! First, your father, and now you. Am I not good enough? Am I such an awful person?” Visibly clenching her jaw, she marched to the kitchen and pulled on the handle to the knife drawer, but it wouldn’t budge. Jay had already replaced the lock after her last incident with the knives. She screamed. “Everybody hates me. I might as well die!” As Jay approached her, trying to calm her down, she grabbed the coffeepot and threw it on the floor, shattering. “Get away from me! I just want to die!”
Jay tried to keep her from hurting herself, but she was too quick. She had already picked up a glass shard off the floor and held it up to her neck. Hands held high like he was under arrest, he said, “Okay. You win. I won’t go to art school. Now put down the glass and let’s talk.”
Her eyes widened. “You think I’m crazy, just like your dad did. That’s why he left. He didn’t think I was good enough, either.”
“Mom, dad died, remember? A mugger robbed him.”
Glass nestled between her fingers, his mom held her hands on the sides of her head and pulled at her hair, crying. “He left because he didn’t love me anymore. And neither do you! Nobody loves me.”
Jay didn’t know what to believe. Did his dad die or was he murdered? He stepped forward with his hand in front of him. “Mom, put down the glass and tell me. Did Dad die or did he leave?”
“Don’t come any further,” she yelled, tears streaming down her cheeks and glass in hand like a knife, extended in front of her as a threat to Jay.
“Okay. Okay. I’ll stay right here, but you need to tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“Did Dad die or did he leave?”
Arm trembling, the glass shook in her hand. “Why won’t you listen? He left! He packed up his things and left.”
The news hit Jay’s chest like a strike from Thor’s hammer, releasing a picture in his mind. On the day he received the comics, his dad tossed Jay’s hair and said, “When times get hard, these stories will help you get through them.” Jay then saw his dad pick up two brown suitcases and walked out the door. He worked at the cement factory in town. Why would he need his travel bags? The answer was obvious. It was staring at him in the face his entire life, but he refused to acknowledge its existence. Dad didn’t die. He left, abandoning his wife, and his son.
Jay stood frozen in unbelief.
His mom fell to her knees, crying hysterically, but all Jay could hear was the sound of his dad’s footsteps walking over the threshold and out of his life. Like a robot, he turned around with an emotionless face and stiff movements, trudging to his room and closing the door behind him. He picked up a Spider-Man landline phone that sat next to his Iron Man lamp and dialed 9-1-1. “My mom is trying to kill herself,” he said, nonchalantly. He gave the address and hung up the phone, staring at the lamp.
With a flick of his wrist, he turned it on and immersed himself in the light of Iron Man’s arc reactor, which is where the bulb screwed in. The light gave Jay a moment of clarity. He thought about Tony Stark, a man familiar with tragedy, but never allowing the tragedy to hold him back. He defined his own world and made something of himself, beyond his father’s imagination. That’s what he had to do. “Excelsior!” said Stan, fist in the sky. There were no limits except the ones Jay put on himself. He didn’t have to live in the shadow of his father’s leaving. Neither did he have to live in the prison of his mom’s insanity. He had his own life to live, his own trail to blaze, his own world to build.
Jay pulled out a suitcase from his closet and stuffed it with clothes and art supplies. Stan Lee might not have been real to him, but he was more of a dad than his biological one, so he listened to the advice from his dream. “Stop wasting your life in my world and live your own.”
Heart pounding, Jay grabbed his suitcase and tattered backpack, whispering to himself, “Excelsior.” He left the apartment before the cops and paramedics came, walking to the bus station and catching the next ride to Dallas.
The first responders would take care of his mom. It was time for him to take care of himself.
He got on the bus and said goodbye to Palestine, never looking back.