Samuel Sattin offers the first chapter of his exciting new novel, League of Somebodies, about the making of superheroes and men.
THE FIRST TRIAL OF MANHOOD
As a dying man, Lenard Sikophsky would often look back upon the night when he was a child, and his father, Fearghas Murdoch Sikophsky—the first generation of Scottish/Jewish/Polish (with a lower case ‘p’) émigrés pil- grimming into America by briny way of the Massachusetts coast—stuffed a sponge soaked with chloroform between his lips, wrapped a sash around his eyes, and got ready to introduce him to a concept he called manhood by way of a speeding train.
“Look up at me, boy,” Lenard remembered his father saying, after permission to lift the blindfold was given. It was late December in 1967, around dinnertime, when the twelve-year-old found himself crouching on the train tracks below the bridge at West Fourth Street, just outside Dorchester.
“Look up at me.”
His father stood, beard forked, above Lenard on the bridge platform’s center. Below him, in stone relief, a porpoise-like creature begirded the bodies of four grinning cherubs holding swords. He walked over them in blasphemous bursts, slapping against the stone with his Old-World brogues, while his mohair suit, slithering with pinstripes, struggled to keep up the pace. His beard and muttonchops twinkled with silver. The purple dollop of his boyhood yarmulke bit into his head as if it were a small, angry animal, and he had a look in his eyes, something bacchanal, conveying to his son the simple, sinister phrase:
It is time.
“I thought I couldn’t look up,” said twelve-year-old Lenard, the words whimpering from his massive mouth. The enormous size of that mouth, and head that held it, earned him nicknames from children around his home of Milton, Massachusetts, like queer globe and pregnant face. “No matter what. Like you said back at home.”
“I never said that,” growled Fearghas. “But I heard you.” “The words I say are not really words,” he continued, scratching the fabric over his ass with vigor. “Remember that I, unlike you, am a daredevil of language. A regular Evel Knievel on the subject of tongues. You want to see through my syllables, earn the ability to understand the space in between them—soar over them on your own goddamn motorbike! But you can’t just wake up into greatness, see? The history of such happenings is impossible.”
Lenard, with a twitch at his left eye, nodded.
“It’s like asking a horse why it’s a horse,” Fearghas carried on. “Urging me to recount what I previously said. Don’t resign yourself to a life of constant puzzlement, Son. There are far better routes to embark upon. Like tonight, for example.” He grinned. “Tonight is both the beginning and end of your once- stupid life. It is tonight that I will tell you: prepare to run, wee fucker.” He bared his teeth. “It is tonight that I will tell you: prepare to fight.”
Earlier Fearghas had forced Lenard to wear the blindfold while giving what he called an explanation for this mayhem. It began with the child’s Bar Mitzvah lessons one-month prior at the tucked-away synagogue of Rodef Shalom. Rodef was a granite building, shaped like a nipple, that attendants believed unknown to the goyim. The presiding Rabbi was more than a cen- tury old, and when he spoke it was rumored that paint flaked from the doors of the Ark. The congregation was comprised of no more than fifty Old-Worlders—crestfallen Europeans and scholars from Algeria—and their chipper, American-born children, who had the tendency to sneak out of services to smoke pot.
It was at this tiny synagogue that Lenard began squeaking out his communally task mastered Haphtarah. It was also there that his father prepared his unusual destiny. Under the eyes of theologians with copper-rimmed spectacles, Lenard chiseled away at his people’s text without a single inkling of his fate. He never remembered the names of the ones who watched over him, but remembered the way they smiled, like the vowel-less letters themselves. How sometimes, even if he’d thought he’d pronounced them well, they’d pinch him on the shoulder and scold, “Nu, do it again. These things you say ‘ist mistake!” or “These America-boys— brain is rotten. Intellect for penny candy and Superman.”
At the time, Lenard supposed they griped for his perfection, as well as for the perfection of every child of American soil, because his country would never resemble the land where they were born. How could he have anticipated anything else? He saw how they constantly kvetched of how nothing was as good here as it was at home. The citizens themselves, they’d say, were spoiled, and the neighborhoods, crowded; the American Dream, they’d say, was far too implausible, almost in the way of a myth. They never mentioned anything about the dark and scaly windmill of Lenard’s future, and so never gave him reason to worry. Actually, the more they belayed him with their daily grumbles, the more the boy began to forget about his stud- ies and feel sorry for them. It was easy to see that Rodef Shalom of Milton, Massachusetts, was not something they were used to. It was most certainly not Har Zion of Itchki, Poland (a wondrous shtetl of winding brooks, silver flowers, and traditional ideas) where Fearghas, many years ago, had been lined up for greatness by his father, Apollonius Sikophsky. On the fateful day of his own Bar Mitzvah, the feral youth had been ushered from the pews wearing a Tallis adorned with Yemenite gold. Approaching what was ru- mored to be the most important ceremony of a Jewish boy’s life, rather than being mesmerized by The Twilight Zone or Hogan’s Heroes, in the manner of his son, he learned of a sacred tome passed down through his family for generations. A book considered more sacred to the male Sikophskies than their very own people’s Torah. In Lenard’s twelfth year, while he studied away, thinking nothing of his life was any more extraordinary than it was for any child his age, he was secretly being prepared to assume a position of a most dangerous persuasion. For it was in his father’s fathers’ book that his life would take its stake. He wouldn’t learn about the book until after tonight, until after he was stolen from his room and thrown in the back of his family’s Cutlass and told to stay quiet until otherwise notified. The Manful Exercises of Aesop Mac’Cool, it was called. Or, as it was deemed to those familiar: The Manaton.
“The rule tonight is you don’t look up, unless I tell you to look up,” Fearghas said now, glowering down at his son. “So, ifI tell you to look up, then. . . .”
“I look up,” Lenard completed tentatively.
From behind Fearghas’s back came a cane, black as an oil stick, and he used it to murder the ground. “Ready?” the Scotsman growled, baring a canine.
“Yes Sir,” lied Lenard.
“Then look up.”
“Why? What are you waiting for?” “I’m scared, Sir.”
“Why are you scared?”
“I’ve never seen you like this before.”
Lenard watched his father smile. He wondered how he could do so, considering where they were. With
the Scotsman looming on the bridge above him, there seemed to be no escape. Two concrete walls grown over with ivy rose above Lenard on his left and right side, and behind him, just like in front, tracks carried on with no end. Adolescent graffiti was scrawled amongst the vines, curse-words and drawings of body parts whose meaning he could not fathom, but about which, even under the circumstances, he still wanted to learn. Every few seconds he thought he felt something nipping at his shoes, but tried not to think about it. There was already enough to be frightened of as far as he was concerned.
“Come on, Son,” his father said, sweetly and softly, as has been typical before tonight. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Just meet me eye to eye, as men are meant to do.”
Lenard chanced a gaze at his father. Slow and careful. His eyes were still sticky from the blindfold. “Bad decision,” Fearghas muttered, and from his fist a small kettle potato flew straight at Lenard’s head. “Idiot!” he yelled. “Never look in me eyes when you’re on the tracks of life.”
He might have gotten out all his words before the potato beamed Lenard on the left temple.
“Ow,” he yelped–though it hadn’t hurt that much at all, only left him confused at being assaulted with what usually became dinner.
“Ow,” Fearghas sniggered, hands up in mock-alarm. “Halt your yapping. There’ll be plenty of pain to deal with later in life, you hear? Plenty of ouches. You haven’t seen nothing yet. No you haven’t, Bar Mitzvah boy. Here’s an idea for you—these tracks,” his hand scoured over the entire expanse of railway. “Think of them like life, from beginning to end. And you never let your guard down on life’s tracks. Do you?” He dipped his ear for- ward for a response. After hearing nothing from his son, who was still a bit stunned, he answered himself with, “No. Not for a second.”
Lenard, just as clinically passive as he was terrified, said, “Sorry, I won’t do it again, Dad.” He’d never seen his father full of such animus before, and witnessing it felt surreal and, strangely, exciting.
“Damned right you won’t,” said Fearghas in response. “And don’t ever say you’re sorry. And don’t call me Dad, either. Tonight, you will refer to me as Fearghas. Fearghas, hear?”
“I’m trying to protect you.”
“I don’t want They to stand a chance.” “Who’s They?” asked Lenard. “What?” asked Fearghas.
“What?” asked Lenard.
“I love you, boy.” Fearghas made himself stand proudly. All the wild hair below his yarmulke yawned in a mane down his cheeks.
“Oh,” he mused, “I do. And it’s for love and only love that I’ve brought you here tonight. Whatever happens, and though you might be angry, know you’ll thank me for it all one day. When you pass it on to your own wee ones, and to their own wee ones after that. And to their own wee ones, the weeest, weeest of ones. And the weeest of the weeest of wee ones they end up having.”
Fearghas had crouched closer to the ground with each and every enunciated “wee,” and their eventual superlatives, which were spoken in a loud voice as he sat into a squat.
“You catch?” he asked, leaving Lenard to guess as to whether or not his father knew the appropriate way to use Scottish adjectives (or if anybody did, for that manner).
“Love,” said Lenard. He said just that one word. Stated it. It got caught in his mouth for a second, but then simply fell out. He thought of how he would never have been able, in his wildest imagination, to throw any of his “weeest ones” onto the railway tracks outside of Dorchester, or any Chester for that matter, or to launch potatoes at them, all out of the desire to see them, well. . .what was it they were doing?
“Love,” said Lenard again, as if it were a conclusion. Some argument he’d stopped with a gunshot. “Yes. I do understand that.”
“I’m glad you do,” said Fearghas. “For it is my biological responsibility as your father to drag you, screaming, into the hungry sea of enlightenment. Now, wee fucker.” He wiped his hands, placed them on his cane, and wiggled his Hungarian-styled moustache. “Let’s try this again. Look up at me.”
“Nu-uh,” said Lenard, as he tightened his fists. “Not this time. I learned my lesson.”
Another potato whizzed out and struck him on the head.
“Always expect the unexpected when walking the tracks of life,” laughed Fearghas. He shouldered up a green burlap sack filled with golden, red, and white spuds—one he wore sprightly in the manner of a purse. “Here, the approaching train isn’t your only enemy. No.” His eyes scooped the air. “Here, there are many other villains of whom you should keep constantly aware.”
“Like flying potatoes?” asked Lenard, rubbing his head. He was impressed at his own first attempt at sarcasm, but couldn’t ignore the meekness it accompanied.
“Yes, like potatoes.” Fearghas paused. He postured one of his fingers against his chin in demonstration of how easy it was for a male Sikophsky to actively, if not visually, become stupider. “Or, as I like to put it, in more adult terms: distractions. Distractions, with a capital ‘D.’ Like They, for example, that’s a distraction. Or women. . .oh yes.” He paused. “And what sorcery flows from their vulvas.”
“What’s a vulva?” asked Lenard, for some reason visualizing a whale- like creature in his mind. “Quiet, sparrow droppings,” yelled Fearghas, raising his cane.
A bell tolled in the distance and Lenard stayed silent, touching at his product-hardened hair. He looked so out of place upon the tracks. He’d become well known around town for the naivety he demonstrated towards American fashion as it warp-sped through time. For him, the word “clueless” would have been an insult to the entire body of human decorum. As a way to bond with his father and the obsession the man had with Rudolph Valentino, Lenard sloped back his hair back with globs of pomade, mak- ing him easily spotted from land, air, or sea like a dollop of mobile tar. His clothes were too big. His shoes were too small, and he moved in the manner of a hiccup.
“Prepare yourself,” Fearghas screamed again. “Your world is already at its end!”
Lenard felt the ground rumble. He heard the windbag of his father’s voice inflate into the fog. Though he couldn’t see it, he knew the train was somewhere in the distance. He didn’t want to face it yet, but knew eventually he would have to. The redbrick walls were high and narrow. Yards before him a stream of smoke hissed out a manhole below a grate.
“Wee fucker,” commanded Fearghas, glowering down from the bridge. “Listen to me good. This is only the beginning of your many endeavors to come. Only the start. So now, on this night two months before your Bar Mitzvah, you must be strong, fast, and outrun the train. Tonight’s overarching theme: life always gives you a way out. Understand? Cause if you don’t,” he said, as if he hadn’t realized the following fact himself, tongue against his cheek, “You’ll get your gut box ripped out.”
Lenard took a deep breath. He thought squeamishly about his only (difficult to imagine) “gut box,” and turned around. Even as he wondered if this entire scheme had been concocted in spite of something he’d done wrong during his studies, if he was being punished for singing off pitch, or not being enthusiastic enough about his Torah portion. He would do this for his father, just this once.
“Prepare yourself!” Fearghas yelled again. He brought Lenard into the present by drumming his cane against the ground. “Prepare yourself for the test of a lifetime. There’s no turning back now. The train approaches.”
“I don’t see any train, Sir,” said Lenard, watching the lightless tracks carry on into the distance.
“But you feel it?” Fearghas smiled. It was true, Lenard did feel it. He’d felt it since he set foot on the rail.
Fearghas licked his lips and looked down the ends of the tracks where, finally, a tiny light appeared. “Fear is what makes us unlock the impossible,” he said, as it extended its range. “Can’t you see? You, boy, are going to live an extraordinary life. And you must not allow fear to suppress your future. Look into the distance. Prepare to fight. Make those eeny weeny testes of yours beat for survival in the face of your zeitgeist—or, what I like to call. . .your Kraken!”
Kraken. Just saying that name, slurring it from thick, sloppy lips, set a dark bedtime story into motion. “Dad,” Lenard pleaded, looking over his shoulder. “I’m scared.”
“Scared?” said Fearghas, crossing his arms and laughing. “Consider yourself lucky you’re scared. There’d be no civilization without fear.”
“No civilization without fear?”
“No fear without the breath of life.”
“No fear without the breath of life?” “The crap in our pants is what guides us.” “The crap in our pants is what guides—”
“Shut it, boy, and watch for the train.”
Fearghas had chosen 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne’s epic of underwater adventure, to read to the boy every night, over and over, in order to secretly spark, as his own father had failed to spark in him, a potential for heroism and greatness. Though cruel, whatever Fearghas did to Lenard he believed was done in the name of an ancestral duty the boy couldn’t possibly have known about. The fact that fear was necessary to encourage strength was a terrifying prospect, but something Fearghas believed this special, chosen child would have to learn. He often embellished on the novel itself, making the beast’s tentacles blacker, slimier, more resilient to defeat. After years of inundation, the Kraken was set so deep into Lenard’s psyche that he would never escape his fear of it, no matter how old or wise he became, for the two of them, human and beast, had formed an inky, cel- lular relationship. When he was a child, the mighty squid, in one fell swoop, conquered the proscenium of his dreams. Lenard was defeated before he was strong enough to fight, and so defeated for the rest of his life. Such thrashings nurtured violent existences in heroes introduced to their night- mares early. Noble, maybe, but nonetheless violent. Something Fearghas acknowledged with glee.
“Look to the yonder,” the Scotsman screamed, arms wiggling like the Kraken’s tentacles themselves. “It approaches.”
Lenard did look yonder now, not that yonder, for the train was clos- er than yonder, and gaining quickly. A storm was coming with it. Clouds swelled in the sky. A bit of thunder boomed in the distance.
“Run,” screamed Fearghas. His eyes were spotted and round like quail eggs as he stomped one brogue against the ground. The brass buckle that overlay the heel went click, click, click, and lightning dissevered the clouds. “Run, you wee, daffy fucker. Run for your stupid wee, daffy fucking life!”
Lenard froze. He looked at the train as it phantomed forward in a rage of light. It was mesmerizing. It looked alive. The wheels barked. The front grill, shoveling downwards, seemed capable of unearthing steel. Lenard wiped the sweat from his eyes and noticed his father above him. He laughed as if he was crying. “Fly from the cold ‘fuck you’ of fear!” Skreeeee, came the voice of the train, and Lenard began to run from it as fast as he could. He ran somewhere straight ahead where there seemed to be nowhere. Away from whatever this crazy test of jungle manhood had become. His feet knocked up pebbles as he thumped across the rails. He noticed a small gap in the wall beside an empty oil drum.
“There you go, Son,” screamed Fearghas, his voice barely etching over the roar of the train. “Now you get it. You run or you die. You escape or you die! Can you hear the Almighty, now? Can you hear him when he speaks?”
Fearghas was throwing his tiny potatoes. They rained down in a bizarre, tuberosum meleé. One struck Lenard on the shoulder, but he didn’t care. When the next one came, he swerved from it. Skreeeeeshhhhhhhtp, he heard, and, with a leap that took his shoe, slung himself inside the gap in the wall, barely big enough for his body. His shoulders smacked the concrete and his eyes saw color. Half his body fell to the rails. The hell he’d endured in getting to this point, gone. The hours he’d sat blind and hungry, listening to words about destiny, duty, a mysterious entity called They; whatever happened to have micturated from his father’s mouth, evaporated.
“Do you accept?” Fearghas had asked him, before removing the blindfold and guiding his shoulders atop the tracks. “Or,” he smiled, “do you sip at the teat of mediocrity, like the rest of this abominable planet?” Now, as Lenard’s face was scrunched half-conscious against the concrete, pressing out his left cheek for air, he wished he’d changed his answer. The wind blew at his back.
Just the sound of it was cold.
He thought he heard something like, “All right, Son,” though distant. “All right, Son, time to go home. But don’t think you’ve won half this war.”
Lenard was astonished at the clarity of his father’s voice and, for a moment, forgot where he was. He couldn’t hear the train anymore. Maybe a patter of rain.
Then, Fearghas finally screamed. “Come! Boy! Home! Now!” Which Lenard heard pristinely. “It’s time for dinner.”
As he found his footing he emerged onto the tracks. The train, which he now realized was only the front locomotive, remained still. He walked towards it with fingers outstretched, waiting, with increasing self- doubt, for the point when he’d fall through the light from a trick mirror and fumble to his face. But no, it was real. Real and grim as an occupied coffin.
“You’ve done a good job.” Fearghas wiped his brow and fastened on two leather gloves far up his wrists. “Not a great job. But a good job. It’s time to go home.”
“What are you talking about?” yelled Lenard, exasperated. He looked around at the night, his father, as if they’d become trick mirrors too. “What? What job did I do?
“Don’t raise your voice, boy. You sound a fool.”
From within the train’s cabin window suddenly protruded the body of a shocked-looking man in what seemed like his fifties, no, his eighties (his hundreds?), wearing once-white pajamas turned orange. In the crook above his left cheek, he had a bulging eye that was obviously made of glass, and as he took off his hat, a wheel of fluffy hair wiped out towards the sky.
“Thank you, Argyll,” said Fearghas, waving one hand without turning to address the man. He adjusted the collar of his mohair jacket and began marching towards a set of spiral stairs.
“No problem at all, Fergie.” Argyll saluted Lenard’s father with his glass eye cocked out. Nearly all of his teeth had turned brown. “I’ll see you down at the Men’s Club.”
“I still don’t see what the hell’s going on,” said Lenard. His arms were limp at his sides. His face was limp, too, dripping with sweat as he questioned whether he knew his father at all. This man who stole trains, or had others do so for him. This man who used to make pancakes on the weekends, or sing the Highland Fairy Lullaby to help his son fall asleep.
“Don’t you dare use that language with me,” yelled Fearghas now, spinning on his heels. “Or I’ll scour your mouth with painting oil.”
“Sorry,” squeaked Lenard. He hadn’t even known he’d cursed. The shock of facing death, or the shock of not facing death but thinking he had, scrambled his mind. Something he wondered if his father had noticed. “I just can’t believe. . .the train. It was never going to hit me?”
“Well, of course it wasn’t going to hit you,” said Fearghas, seeming in genuine shock as he tapped down the stairs. “Do you think I’m a Gud damned sociopath?”
Lenard shook his head at his father’s u substitute, making God sound more like goot when naming their people’s chosen deity. His legs shook as well, though he didn’t stop to realize it. He thought, for a quick moment he probably wouldn’t remember years from now, that maybe, as the Scotsman had claimed, he truly wasn’t a sociopath. That maybe, upon sparing Lenard actual pain, he’d been trying to teach him a lesson. Something to hope for on this dreary Boston night that came, of all places, from the unscrubbed depths of Fearghas Murdoch Sikophsky’s sphinx-like heart.
Though at the moment, such sentiments seemed laughable.
“Now, pick up those potatoes and bring them back for dinner, or your mother will have my hide. And Argyll,” Fearghas commanded his cohort as he set foot on the tracks. “Make sure and return that train to the museum before midnight! Hear?”
“Yep, Fergie.” The chalk-haired man made an effortful little bow. He jittered with something in his pockets. As he got up for a moment to search the train’s cab, Lenard noticed that he wasn’t wearing pants. “Sure do.”
Lenard received a needed cooling as the rain continued to fall. His eyes centered on the dying train before him, the itinerant-looking man inside its iron cabin who smiled and waved one hand. His father was pushing ahead of the scene towards a door he hadn’t noticed in the tunnel.
As Lenard watched the storm puddle below his feet, an impulse to cry fell upon him. Lenard Sikophsky didn’t cry, though. No. He didn’t. Because brave boys didn’t cry. Weak boys cried. Weak boys were injured. But brave boys, they just kept on running, and fighting, and Lenard was a brave boy. Or at least he thought he was—something, in retrospect, that probably kept him sane, especially after his father revealed that he’d been sneaking what could be considered poison into his food to alter his mortal constitution.
A hand fell over Lenard’s shoulder. It was the very same hand that, moments ago, had been throwing potatoes; but this time, it squeezed him tenderly.
“Come on, my little hero,” Fearghas said. They heard the warning bell announcing another train. The Scotsman’s voice had suddenly changed, laced with a sweetness Lenard was used to. “You’ve done well for today. Very well.”
Lenard looked up at him, less afraid now, and nodded, pretending he’d expected those words. He held the potatoes tight in his half-soaked shirt. A smile shadowed through Fearghas’s silver beard and the great hawkish eyes looked down.
“Why don’t you give me a couple of those potatoes, now,” he said, picking them from Lenard’s shirt and stuffing them back in the sack. The small boy’s stomach filled with a love so lurid, so damn sharp, he thought it would cut through his kidneys.
“Your mother.” Fearghas smiled with all his rotting teeth. “She’s making a mighty fine stew.”
League of Somebodies is available at Amazon.com