The other characters work as a gang, is the thing. The game is to lure the kids in with banter, and then get the parents to agree to a photo real fast before they have time to think it through. Then they explain the ground rules, that they ask for a little something for their time. A tip. Kent’s watched them work, heard the smooth way they spin it. They edge up close to the mother, play to her sympathies. Or they appeal man-to-man to the dad, make it too embarrassing for him to walk away without saying yes to the photo and giving a tip. Or if it’s the Transformer doing the talking, with his bared six-pack flexing beneath the weight of the fake truck hood on his shoulders, he plays to the mother’s deeper sympathies or the dad’s deeper insecurities.
“It’s basic human psychology,” the Transformer explained on one of Kent’s first nights working the Strip. The Transformer’s face had gone rubbery with booze, and he’d tapped his head as he said it, braying in a Boston accent that came out after the third round. It was midnight and they’d gone to drink at The Excalibur. They’d technically called it a night with the hustle, but Pokémon had suggested the “family friendly” casino in the hopes of snagging a few last photos with kids whose parents were too drunk on cheap cocktails and slot machines to get them into bed at a decent hour. “Keep your eyes peeled for a bachelorette party,” Chewbacca had said as they walked in, his mangy, furry head on his hips, and his pock-marked face revealed to Kent for the first and last time. “You can make real money off a bachelorette party if you talk them up right.” But there were no kids whose parents would let them near the drunk men playing at superheroes and cartoon characters. And there were no brides-to-be who wanted to sit on Chewbacca’s lap or feel the Transformer’s abs of steel. It was all bullshit. Kent doesn’t remember what he said that night, but it must have been something that hit one of the guys too close to the bone because that’s usually what’s happened when morning comes and he finds he’s suddenly on the outs again.
So he works alone now at the foot of the escalators leading to the NYNY-MGM Grand pedestrian overpass. Not by choice, but because the others made it clear to him that he would work alone, and that he would cede the prime spots to them. This isn’t anything new, the way the guys welcomed him at first and then pulled away once he let his guard drop. It isn’t anything his mother wouldn’t have predicted back home in New Jersey. His mother called him too soft as a kid, but that’s not it. It’s that he feels too much. He feels his own feelings, but also the feelings of everyone around him, so sometimes he has to get alone in a quiet room just to untangle his emotions from those of the folks all around him and know where his own pain begins and ends.
He’d moved to Las Vegas thinking it would be a good change, that he could start over, but he walks down the Strip and it’s a goddamn flood, an assault of feelings. Sadness and hate and greed and longing. It took him a few days to notice it when he first arrived, because he was so distracted by the lights and the noise and the constant motion.
It’s the after-dinner crowd on the streets, now. A family is walking his way, a mom and dad and two girls, the parents loaded down with bags from M&M World and the Hershey Factory, the kids already with that glassy-eyed sugar-crash look like they’ll need their next hit soon, their next jolt of vacation excitement. Enter Superman.
Kent clears his throat as they approach. “Hey, kids!” he says. He flashes his biggest grin and angles his chin to show off his jawline to the mom to best effect. The younger girl slows down and for a second Kent thinks he’s got her, but the mom grabs the kid by the shoulder and steers her away from him, not a word of acknowledgment or even a look back as they step onto the escalator. He looks up to the overpass and there’s the Transformer leering down at him. When he catches Kent’s eye he mouths Pussy and winks, then moves in on that same family that just blew Kent off, the Transformer and the Pokémon intercepting both parents, Chewbacca lying in wait just a few steps ahead. The younger daughter pleads, the mom looks at the dad, the dad shrugs, and out comes the money, just like that.
But here comes another family now, walking Kent’s way. The dad’s got an oiled-up boozy look to him, no mom in sight, and two boys trailing close on his heels. Maybe seven and five? Eight and four? What does Kent know? But in the range, for sure. And the older kid’s even got a Superman t-shirt on. How about that?
“Hey, kid,” Kent says. “Hey, Superman fan.” He crouches down a little, lets his face go soft and safe. The dad rolls half a glance over Kent and keeps moving, but Superman Kid stops right on cue and the dad gets pulled back into Kent’s orbit by that invisible parental tether.
“Hi,” the kid says, eager and shy both. Those are the ones who convert to cash.
“I like your shirt,” Kent ventures. “How about we take a photo together?”
“We don’t have time for that,” the dad says, sucking his teeth.
“Just a quick photo, Dad,” Kent says.
“Yeah, how much for your quick photo?”
“Just a tip,” Kent says. “Whatever you…”
“Come on, Josh,” the dad says, tugging at the kid’s arm.
The kid hesitates a second, then starts to follow after the dad who’s already walking away again.
“Hang on, now, Josh,” Kent says, reaching out to touch the kid’s departing back, to reestablish some sort of connection.
Josh shrinks away from his touch and the dad stops, fixes a glare on Kent.
Only two photos he’s managed to take in three hours. A pitiful six bucks he’s made in three hours of work, while the Transformer Gang is raking it in overhead.
“Come on, man,” Kent says to the dad. “I’ll do it for a buck, two bucks. I see your kid’s a fan.”
The dad rolls his eyes and looks down at Josh, who’s got a panicked look all of a sudden. The kid moans and opens his mouth wide and out shoots a stream of candy-colored vomit. Kent jumps back as the puke splashes up the leg of his blue tights, and he feels his ass connect with something behind him, and then a wail goes up.
The younger kid. He’d forgotten all about him. He’s sprawled on his back where Kent knocked him over.
Kent turns back to the dad, “Whoa, I didn’t see the little guy. I’m so so—”
—and as the punch connects with his jaw, in the moment before his head meets the sidewalk and he’s out for the count, Kent feels self-loathing and confusion and lust flow sickly sweet from the dad’s fist.
His first night in Vegas, right off the plane, Kent was sure everything was finally going to go his way. He felt it like a subtle buzz just under the surface. When he got to his motel room, for example. Fresh from the airport and he asked a cabbie to take him to a cheap motel, whichever one the guy suggested, and he got dropped off at a seedy but palatable place pretty far east on Flamingo Road, well away from the Strip, but Kent never did mind a long walk. When he got to his room he found a black duffel bag left behind in the closet. Unzipped it and what was it? A Superman costume. Tights, top, trunks, cape, shoe covers that came up nearly to his knees and looked like boots. His size, almost, just the slightest bit baggy at the knees and shoulders. Good quality, too. He didn’t know yet what he would do with it, but he tried it on and flexed in front of the full-length mirror bolted to the back of the door, and thought for sure that it was a blessing whose meaning would be revealed when the time was right.
And then that very night! He walked out of the motel to Tropicana Ave. and in the parking lot of a 7-11 there were a group of kids, boys and girls both, hanging out, leaning against cars and smoking and looking like they were hatching a plan. Kent looked way young for thirty, which was mostly a hassle but sometimes it payed off, and that night he started talking to this one girl with faded pink hair and a lip ring and an unfiltered sweetness. She invited him to a party they were all going to. Turned out they were UNLV kids and it would be a UNLV party, and she wanted him to tag along.
Her name was Kerry, and she smoked those long cigarettes that only old ladies smoked back in Jersey. With every exhale of smoke, she gave off a softness and an eagerness, a tinge of trusting hope so wide open it made Kent frightened for her. She was from someplace in the southeast and she was out there for art school. The kids were all, it turned out, art students.
There was this guy at the party, a Welsh guy. A painter. He was one of their professors, but a visiting professor, and he was just about done in Vegas, headed home soon, which is how, Kent supposed, he justified partying with the kids. Kent liked his voice—not only his accent, but his voice itself—and he sat a good long time with the guy, listening, even though he didn’t know what all the guy was talking about half of the time. He was lit; they both were.
“The thing is?” the Welsh guy said, “the Strip is bullshit. It’s good for the occasional voyeuristic thrill, sure, but that’s all emptiness. It’s hollow. What you really want to do is head out to the desert, don’t you?”
“Do I?” Kent said.
But the guy kept rolling on like he hadn’t asked a question and Kent hadn’t answered, so Kent started wondering if it had been a question at all. The painter was thirty years old—the same age as he was—but he seemed to have come from a luckier, wiser planet than Kent. Even his accent was smarter. (Ah, but all that luck and wisdom and even so Kent caught waves of loneliness coming off of him like paint fumes. Loneliness and then the metallic tang of a despair so old it may as well have been the lining of the poor guy’s heart.)
“I’ve really connected with the desert here,” the guy went on. “Especially Red Rock Canyon. And it’s so close!” He leaned in now, tapping his beer on Kent’s knee. “You go west on 95 and in twenty minutes you’re there and you won’t believe the beauty of it. Stark and dry like nothing I’ve ever seen. I don’t mean to sound like… Well… but it’s a connection to the universe you feel when you’re out there, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, man,” Kent said. “That sounds good. That sounds real good.” He thought about what waited in the black duffel in his motel room, and about the mysterious promise of it. And then it wasn’t more than five minutes later that Kerry came over and sat down next to him. She took his chin in her hand, turning it this way and that, and right before she kissed him she said, “That black hair and that jaw. You look like Superman.”
When Kent comes to it’s not a slow sliding into consciousness, but like the bottom falling out of a dream and dropping him hard and fast onto cold concrete. It’s late, gotta be the middle of the night for the thinness of the crowd and the nature of the few people drifting past him where he lies at the foot of the escalator. No one helped him, but no one’s moved him, either. Yeah, but as he sits up, wincing at the ache in his skull, he sees his fanny pack is unzipped, hanging open like a dropped jaw, and it’s empty. All his cash, his phone, his ID, the key to the storage locker where he’s been keeping his stuff since he ran out of money to pay for that motel… it’s all gone. He’s got an empty fake-leather fanny pack and a Superman costume and a bitch of a headache and that’s it. That’s exactly it. Which is to say, he has fuck all.
He hauls his skinny ass up off the sidewalk. “Hey, Superman, hey, Superman,” a bum drones as he shuffles by, and Kent ignores him but also feels maybe he isn’t one to judge, broke as he is and some kid’s dried puke flaking off his leg. He starts to walk.
He walks north along the Strip because the Transformer’s crew likes to drink along the south end of the Strip after hours and he’ll be damned if he’ll risk running into them right now. He passes lone stumbling drunks and pairs of stumbling drunks and small knots of tourists in various stages of drunk. No one laughs at him openly, but he can feel it bubbling through them as they go by.
He has no idea what time it is. In Las Vegas, they never want you to know what time it is. If he had his phone, he would know. But what does it matter? It doesn’t matter. Usually after quitting time he’d go back to his storage locker and swap the cape for a set of normal clothes and find some place out of the way to curl up and catch some sleep for a few hours before cleaning up in one of the casino bathrooms. He’d spend his mornings applying for real jobs—bookkeeper, restaurant manager, cashier, dishwasher, anything—and more than a few times he came close to landing something, but always in the end it fell through. They’d look at his résumé and they’d listen to his answers and they’d lean forward like they were about to say yes, but then they’d catch his eye and something would shift and they’d lean back and it would be a no. Over and over like that. And anyway now some asshole has the key to all his respectable clothes and who’s gonna hire Superman?
As he walks he looks for a place to stop and come to rest, but nowhere looks right. This isn’t his usual turf; he doesn’t know the rules here. You could get a beat-down, trying to sleep in the wrong place, and he’s had enough of that tonight. He could show up at Kerry’s dorm, throw rocks at her window til she sticks her head out. He could pretend he hadn’t noticed that she’d stopped answering his texts weeks ago. “I lost my phone,” he could say. “I hope you don’t think I’ve been blowing you off,” he could say. And maybe she would come downstairs and let him in, and maybe he could stay the night. Because she would feel bad for him, and wouldn’t be able to turn him away. But then he pictures himself curled up to sleep on her floor with his cape wrapped around him, smelling of puke, and he can’t do it.
He could find a pay phone, call his mom collect, say, “Ma, I failed,” say, “Ma, I need to come home.” He could do that, swallow his pride, take that hit. His mom wouldn’t be surprised. She’d say she’d been waiting for his call.
But when he gets to Route 95, fuck it, he turns left and heads west, out of town. The city tugs at him, all that misery and greed grabbing at his cape, but he pushes forward and breaks free, leaving the sick fug of the place behind him, only the sound of his own singular thoughts and the dull ache of his jaw for company. He shuffles out onto the highway, walks along the shoulder, the city lights at his back and ahead of him an enormous, impossible darkness.
At least they didn’t take his shoes.
His mom always called him soft, was always asking why he couldn’t stand up for himself; why he’d let the bullies take his new jacket or throw his backpack onto the roof of the school. Too soft, too soft. Kent isn’t soft. She’ll never understand how hard he’s had to make himself, how much strength it takes to hold off the flood of emotions from everyone around you so they don’t take you down. He knows she’ll never understand because he tried to tell her once and he felt her close herself against him and go dumb. If she’d even try to understand, she wouldn’t blame him for what happened.
Uncle Anthony, that shit heel. Mom’s little brother.
Maybe six months back, Uncle Anthony hired a new waitress named Lori at the family diner, and within a few weeks he was dating her. She was Uncle A’s usual type—big eyes, big hair, big ass—so no one wondered why he hired her or was surprised when they started going out. She was nice, and she was good with the customers, and so it should have been fine.
The thing was, though, that every time she walked past the back office where Kent managed the books, he would catch the racing pulse of a fleeing animal. When he was out front he’d see her smile and giggle while Uncle A pawed her in front of the customers, but Kent felt the panic and humiliation she struggled to push beneath the surface. He tried to ignore it—he didn’t even know her, really. She was just another one of Uncle Anthony’s girlfriends, no different than any of the others. But he couldn’t get away from that fear coming off her. He would lie awake at night thinking about how Uncle A would slip an arm around her waist and every cell in her body would cry out for her to run.
It went on for weeks like that, until Kent could barely work when Lori was on shift because her agitation infected him and got him feeling all squirrelly at his desk. So finally, one day when she was walking her quick, hunted walk past the office, he called out to her. He said, “Lori, come on in for a sec, would you?”
She stood nervous in front of him, not sure what it meant to be called in to the room with the desk and the computer and the stacks of invoices. He said, just like he’d been practicing in his head, “Is everything okay between you and my uncle? I mean… is he hurting you?”
She’d blushed a deep red and started to stammer something—he never did find out what—because then there was Uncle Anthony’s voice booming from the doorway, “Asshole wants to know if I’m doing what now?” Uncle A grabbed Lori by the arm and she was all, “I didn’t say nothing to him, Tony. I don’t know what the hell he was talking about,” and up they went to the front of the house and Lori was back out on the floor working the tables and Uncle A was on his phone to Grandpop.
Grandpop suggested maybe the stress of doing the books was getting to Kent, and that he should take a break. They brought in some girl fresh out of school to fill in for him just for a while, the daughter of someone Kent’s mom knew from Jazzercise class. Yeah, but Kent knew what “just for a while” meant. Whenever he had to go by the diner on an errand for his mom, which he tried to do less and less, Lori wouldn’t meet his eye and Uncle A would shoot him an oily grin like he’d beaten Kent at a game Kent hadn’t even known they’d been playing.
So Vegas. A fresh start. It was his mom who’d suggested it, in fact. “Get out of town,” she’d said. “Try something new.”
And then she’d made him accept when Uncle Anthony offered him a ride to the airport, as if to show there were no hard feelings. The shit heel sang along to the same Billy Joel song on repeat the whole way to Newark, that song “Moving Out,” like he thought he was clever or something, the air in the car sulfurous with anger and triumph.
Kent’s been walking for hours, he figures, and fewer and fewer cars go by in either direction until it’s been so long he can’t remember when he saw the last one. There’s a full moon—or nearly full; he can never tell for sure when it’s really full or give or take by a night on one side or the other—and it hangs heavy and low in the sky. Eerie gray-yellow light, the moon hitting the rocks and sand all around him so there’s a glow to the world, and dawn can’t be too far off.
He’s in the real desert now. No houses, no strip malls, no casinos. Nothing but rocks and cliffs and scrubby brush. How about that, Welsh painter guy? Kent made it to the desert. He takes a step off the highway shoulder onto the loose dirt and it feels good so he takes another step away from the road and another until he’s abandoned the highway completely and is cutting across low rocks to pick a sort of ambling trail.
A blur darts quick across his path and his heart leaps up, but then the blur freezes and becomes a rabbit, dusty gray-brown and quivering. “Hey, buddy,” Kent whispers. “Hey there, hey.” He crouches down, reaches out slowly toward it, making a sort of instinctual clucking sound with his tongue. The rabbit considers his hand for a long heartbeat before racing away into the dark. He chases after it, stumbling into shallow dips and tripping over rocks, falling and scraping his hands and scraping his knees and getting up again and falling again. He’s lost the rabbit but he keeps going, pushing ahead, running as fast as the loose ground will let him go, running just to run. He heads for the big rocks in the distance. They’re grayish-pink in the moonlight and he doesn’t know if they’re hills or mountains or what, but he aims for them, his lungs sucking hard for air and his cape flapping out wild behind him.
He’s heard there’s wild horses out here, and wild burros. Rattlesnakes and scorpions. He’s in it now, he’s all the way in. Blood on his hands and knees, dust in his mouth. The sand isn’t really sand, but the driest possible dirt, and the top layer shifts under his feet but beneath that the ground feels solid and sure. It meets his steps, it holds him up. He runs.
He remembers what the painter was trying to tell him about the desert, and the universe, and the emptiness of… That Welsh guy, with his secret loneliness and despair… when he brought his pain out to the desert, did it get quieter? Did it get lighter? Is that what he found out here?
The earth is his body, his body is of the earth. Kent reaches the wall of rocks that isn’t a hill or a mountain but something else, smaller than it seemed from the road, and closer, and he begins to climb, finding handholds and footholds and boosting himself up, scrambling goatlike and willful. A misstep and he slides down a few feet, catches himself, climbs again. A loose rock and he stumbles, scraping his knees against the rock face. His fingers bleed, leaving black streaks on the gray-pink rock in the fading moonlight. And then he’s at the edge and then he’s up and over it, he’s reached the top. It’s flat and cold, a slab to expose him to the sky, to whatever comes next. He lies still and waits for the desert to decide.
Sunrise. He wakes to something small and quick skittering across his chest but when he sits up there’s nothing there. He’s cold, but he hasn’t died. He stands to find he’s at the top of a ridge, maybe one hundred feet up, maybe more? What does he know about measuring the height of rocks in the desert? He’s higher than the roof of his junior high where his backpack is probably still sitting all these years later, half rotted away, and his sack lunch gone to mold and then dust.
The sky to the east is lit up all gold and pink and impossible reds and there’s a wind blowing through that smells of dust, with something warm and animal riding alongside it. He doesn’t have the words for where he is, if it’s a valley, if it’s a canyon, if he’s on a hill or a ridge or a small mountain or a cliff. He doesn’t have the words and it doesn’t matter.
Down below, on the far side of where he stands, there’s a family emerging sleepy from the mouth of a tent: a mother and a father and a child. The sound of the family’s voices carries so clearly, it’s as if the wind were funneling it straight to his ear. The mother is going to make pancakes for breakfast. The father is talking about the hike they’ll do that day. Their words ride alongside warmth and sleepy habitual love and a gentle boredom; the kind of boredom that’s a privilege; the kind of boredom that—Kent imagines—must come from an easy comfort in your own skin.
Kent’s own family never went camping, and any pancakes he ate as a kid were turned out at the diner and served up on the same heavy white plates, with the same little paper cup of butter, as any nameless customer would get. And Kent has never felt easy in his own skin; Kent has felt, for as long as he can remember, completely skinless. But so what. He lay down on a slab under the desert sky and the desert did not kill him. That’s got to count for something, even if he can’t hold it in his hand like money.
He stands on top of the ridge, the wind blowing his cape all around him, and the rising sun at his back feels like a promise. The sun throws his shadow out long over the valley and the child looks up and points at him and shouts, with absolute delight that bursts golden behind Kent’s eyes, “Mom! Look! It’s Superman!”