I, Michael Freni, am giving away my superpowers.
The big ideas all sound crazy at first, so it’s good luck when they come to you at four in the morning. At four in the morning, crazy is no big deal. At four in the morning crazy may seem like a plus.
I flick on the bedside lamp and write it down, not because I’m afraid I’ll forget it — who could forget an idea like this? — but for the pure pleasure of writing it down.
And maybe also for my biographer to find the note years later, among my papers. Sometimes at four in the morning, I’m certain there’ll be this biographer going through my papers years from now. “Michael Freni kept a pen and paper by his bedside, jotting down the big ideas when inspiration struck in the small hours…”
At eight a.m. in the office, though, “crazy” feels a little like “stupid.” It’s harder now to picture this biographer poring over the papers and so on. And if he did, when he stopped poring and got down to writing he’d have to begin: “Michael Freni lived alone…”
At this point even the thought of telling my assistant makes me cringe. She’s gonna think I’m an idiot. I call her in anyway.
“Janine,” I say, pressing the intercom button. “Could you come in here, please.”
“Yes, Mr. Freni.”
Janine comes in and sits down. She’s wearing a light gray suit. It goes silvery when the light hits it just right.
“Janine,” I say, leaning back in my chair. “I’m giving away my superpowers.”
She blinks. “I’m sorry?”
Yes, she thinks I’m an idiot. But I’ve been through this process before with a big idea. And I’ve been through it before with Janine.
“You’re giving them away,” she repeats.
Her face is expressionless. She hasn’t written anything down yet. That’s because she only writes down the specifics. That’s her job. Janine is good with specifics. I am not. Janine has worked with me a long time, and she knows her role.
“I see,” she says, and I realize I’ve shocked her. I realize this only because I’ve known Janine for so long; her face registers nothing much in the way of emotion, and after a fraction of a second she gets over it. “So you’re not selling them? Not exchanging or bartering them? Just giving them away, for free.” I nod again. She makes a note.
“You’re planning to retire, then?” she asks. I nod again. She doesn’t have to ask this, actually. It was announced at the last Board meeting, and the minutes from the Board meetings are circulated to the staff. Of course, almost no one reads the minutes. But Janine does.
“Okay,” she says. “Have you figured out who you want to give them to? Because it occurs to me –”
“It occurred to me, too, but I’m not giving them all to one person.”
“Of course. For obvious reasons,” she says. She may be suppressing a smile; she may not. I nod. “Well, I suppose I should get an appraisal?”
“No time for that.”
“It wouldn’t take long. You could use the tax write-off.”
I shake my head. “That’s not the way I want to do this.”
She nods again. “Is there a list somewhere?”
I stare at her blankly. “A list?”
“A list of your powers.”
“Oh. Can you draft one for me? There’s got to be something in the files you can just update.”
“I’ll take a stab,” Janine says. “Who are we distributing this list to? Are you going to let the Board know in advance?”
“We’ll send a letter to the Board — I’ll need you to draft that, too — but I’m not going to wait for their approval.”
Because you’d be waiting a long time, thinks Janine. I try not to read minds at random in the office, but that one came through pretty strong. I shake it off and continue.
“I’d like our associates to get first crack at this. After the letter to the Board goes out, I’m thinking we just send out an all-staff email, you know, kind of run it up the flagpole and see who salutes.”
Janine doesn’t like this kind of phony corporate babble. I watch her little nose execute the faintest disapproving wrinkle. It’s not just the jargon, either. She’s a tiny bit idealistic about what we do around here.
However, she simply asks if there will be anything else, and when I say no, she says, “Okay,” and gets up to go. When she gets to the door she turns around and looks at me. “Mr. Freni.”
“I’m sure you’ve thought of this, but…”
She hesitates. I wait.
“… couldn’t you retire… and just… keep your powers?”
“I don’t think that’s a real possibility. Do you?”
“I’m not sure I follow you.”
“It wouldn’t really be retirement if I kept them. That’s what I mean.”
She thinks for a minute. “It could be.”
I shake my head no. “Not the kind of retirement I want. Thank you, Janine. I’d like to see that list by this afternoon. I want to get this dealt with as soon as possible.”
And off she goes. My office door (expensive, heavy, lacquered birds-eye maple) makes this muffled, wimpy, tiny, emasculated excuse for a click when it closes. It drives me fucking nuts. It has for years.
In a dogged mood, I turn to my inbox. I start with the top of the pile, planning to work through it piece by piece, the way cartoon characters work through their cartoon inboxes. Except that I am not a cartoon character. My eyes won’t focus on the papers in my hand. Instead I sit there and look around at my office.
We had a decorator come in and ‘do’ this office. I remember taking an interest in the process at the time. Dark wood, terra-cotta walls, dark brown leather couch. A shelf with a Chinese horse on it, shouldering aside some attractive books I haven’t read. Gray carpet… Did I choose this carpet?
There was a time when choosing carpet would not have been part of my job description.
The good offices on my floor have big windows. My office even has a terrace outside those windows, for the sake of effect. I used to take off from there, once in a while. Impressive to tourists, and venture capitalists, and stockholders and stakeholders and visiting Japanese businessmen.
Marketing. Ah, that stuff used to fascinate me. Now it seems like reinventing the wheel over and over. Irrelevant. Maybe worse than irrelevant, sometimes. I force my attention back to the papers I’m holding.
Here we have a proposal from one of my associates who thinks that Superhero, Inc should look into the purchase of a Seattle-based global shipping concern. It’s a detailed proposal, I’ll say that much for it. I struggle through it in a fog of boredom, thinking about coffee.
Coffee would help me focus. I need to focus, because, if I let it, my mind will wander back to the good old days when I was still fighting evil. Me personally, that is. Before this was a desk job. Knocking out bad guys, rescuing damsels…
With Herculean effort, I wrench my thoughts down from the heroic blue skies and sunsets of memory to the next sheaf of papers. It’s a mockup, for my approval, of the charitable giving pages of our annual report. There’s a light blue post-it on it with a note from Janine: “Includes your latest edits.” I experience mild amazement: I made edits to this thing?
Resolute, I scan the charts and columns of figures, but then it’s noon and I’m tired of working. I decide to leave early. Hell, I’m practically retired. If I don’t get some practice relaxing, I might never get the hang of it.
As I step out of my office, Janine turns her head and gives me her inscrutable, closed-mouth smile. Lately I’ve been wondering if that subdued, perfunctory smile is her only smile, or if it’s just her workplace smile.
I have never had to rescue Janine, I think. Not once. I wonder if anyone has. She couldn’t possibly be this way all the time, so poised and cool and efficient. I try to picture her getting crazy over a few beers, shooting pool, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Does she even drink beer? Does she ever go to a ballgame? Does she like the Mets, or does she like the Yankees?
“Leaving early, Mr. Freni?” she says now.
“Thought I might as well,” I say.
“I’ll have this list for you in the morning, then. Or if you want to check your email later this afternoon…”
“Great, thank you, Janine,” I say, and walk out into the afternoon sun. It’s the first time I’ve left the office before dark in over a year.
The next morning the first email in my inbox is from Janine. Unexpectedly, it strikes me as hilarious.
From: ‘Janine Pasternak’ [email protected]
Date: Tuesday, February 6, 2007 4:04 PM
To: ‘Michael Freni’ [email protected]
Subject: Superpower list
I’ve divided your powers into two lists: major powers and minor ones. You have an open spot on your calendar at 11 today so I’ll stop in then to discuss next steps. Draft text below:
Michael Freni is giving away his superpowers. You are invited to choose one from List A or three from List B.
Indicate your request by replying to this email. Requests will be answered in the order in which they are received.
LIST A: Major powers
__Ability to fly
__Command of animal kingdom (10-yard radius)
__Command of insect kingdom (10-yard radius)
__Ray of destruction (50-yd radius)
__Patience beyond the lot of mortals
LIST B: Abilities
__Breathe under water
__Calculate the tip on separate checks
__Cause small objects to vanish temporarily
__Choose the perfect wine
__Compliment a woman’s appearance without causing offense
__Cook the perfect omelet
__Detect a lie
__Dress appropriately for any occasion
__Drink and not get drunk
__Fix cars and other machines
__Look like a million bucks on little or no sleep for weeks
__Make a perfect cappuccino
__Make your rival appear a fool
__Pack light, even for a long trip
__Remember jokes, including punch lines
__Walk through walls
I sit at my desk laughing out loud. Bewitching charm! Is she kidding? Remember birthdays and anniversaries — ordinary people can’t do this? And the omelet thing! How the hell does she know about that? Is the perfect omelet really one of my powers, or… Isn’t it more like a skill? A knack? What would be the word? Surely she’s pulling my leg?
I don’t know. I don’t want to risk offending her. I reply:
From: ‘Michael Freni’ [email protected]
Date: Wednesday, February 7, 2007 8:16 AM
To: ‘Janine Pasternak’ [email protected]
Subject: Re: Superpower list
Janine, this looks fine. Just change “three from List B” to “two from List B.” No need to meet, please send ASAP. Thx, MF
She fires back:
From: ‘Janine Pasternak’ [email protected]
Date: Wednesday, February 7, 2007 8:16 AM
To: ‘Michael Freni’ [email protected]
Subject: Re: Re: Superpower list
I checked with legal this AM — they recommend including language that notes measurements are approximate, disclaims responsibility for any problems with pickup or delivery of powers or with powers themselves — and so on. They gave me the lingo. Want to run it by you. 11 OK? JP
And, ladies and gentlemen, we have our paper trail. The disclaimer is officially not my idea. I resist the urge to execute a celebratory fist-pump. Is that one of my powers? To get people to put things in writing?
It’s obnoxious to joke about having superpowers if you really do have them. Glib, I think, would be the word. I wipe the smile off my face and hit reply.
From: ‘Michael Freni’ [email protected]
Date: Wednesday, February 7, 2007 8:17 AM
To: ‘Janine Pasternak’ [email protected]
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Superpower list
Janine, in that case, 11 works fine see you then. Thanks, MF
At exactly eleven she taps on the door, steps in and hands me a draft of the email and a draft of the letter to the Board of Directors.
I ask her to wait while I look it over. “Looks good,” I say.
“Good. Now, am I supposed to be working out the logistics?”
“What logistics would those be?”
“I’m sorry — I meant, how are you planning to transfer the powers?”
I smile. “Just leave that part to me. Can we get the letter to the Board out today?”
“I’ll send it out this afternoon. We’ll wait two weeks or so and then we’ll email to the associates.”
“That would be fine. Thank you, Janine.”
They throw a party for me. Black tie. They serve champagne. It’s freezing out, but people stand on the terrace anyway, drinking champagne, looking at the lights of the city below, forgetting what the party is for.
People surround me, clap me on the back, express their sympathy, give joking condolences. I get a lot of golf-related knick-knacks as gifts. I get tired of smiling. My eyes search the room.
I’ve seen her dressed up at black-tie things before, but tonight Janine wears a dress I haven’t seen. Strapless, in a shade of gray that makes her dark hair look darker, which in turn makes her white shoulders look even whiter. The fabric looks warm and substantial, almost like flannel. It looks as though it would be soft to the touch, but she is all the way across the room.
I watch her for a minute until I catch her eye. She gives me her workplace smile.
Just then Bernie Staub corners me, slaps me on the back. Bernie is on the Executive Committee. “Early retirement,” he says. “Every man’s dream. You gonna do some golfing? Relax a little?”
I’m nodding, but he shakes his head. “I don’t buy it! You can’t fool me, Freni,” he says. “You’re not even forty! What’s your second act? Gonna start a new venture? Or maybe you’ll marry that girl you rescued from the Whyrgian Menace? God, she was pretty. What was her name?”
It’s an awkward moment, because now I have to decide whether to remind Bernie what happened to that girl, or stand there silent and wait for him to remember on his own. Which will make him feel less awkward?
Maybe I don’t care if Bernie feels awkward.
“She died, Bernie,” I say. “The Menace came for her while I was holding his Zeta fighter at bay on the Tappan Zee Bridge. I tried to make it back in time to save her, but it was too late. She died in my arms.” There is a small silence. “Her name was Mary Beth,” I add. “Mary Beth Kellior.”
Bernie clears his throat respectfully. “I, ah, I remember that now,” he says. “That was a tough break, Michael. I’m sorry about that.” I can see him searching for a joke to break the tension, and I brace for it, knowing he’ll find one. “Guess that’s why you superheroes don’t date much,” he says.
With a superhuman effort, I manage a weary laugh, slap him on the back, and offer to fetch him a refill. He’ll be as relieved as I will when I don’t come back with it.
I stay late, feeling helpless to leave until they’re ready to let me go. Janine is gone by then. There are plenty of cabs on Fifth Avenue; still, I decide to walk part of the way. Then I just keep walking.
I walk, keeping my Barbour raincoat on because it’s foggy and damp. Even though it’s cold out, I begin to sweat from exertion, possibly ruining a decent tuxedo.
It’s still dark when I reach 81st Street, but the gray of the sky is lighter. Walking west toward my apartment, crossing West End Avenue, I can smell the river in front of me — a great, green, lurking, living smell.
My river, I think. Then I think that sounds egotistical, but it feels true. Somewhere in the dark is a sign with a corny slogan: Superhero, Inc is committed to keeping Manhattan’s waterways clean, fishable, drinkable. Even if we have to use our super powers to do it!
When I reach my building, it’s dark under the awning. The lobby looks welcoming — I guess they make them look that way on purpose. Esteban is the doorman on duty. I look at him through the glass doors. He sits in one of the red chairs no one else ever uses, and doesn’t see me at first. After a bit, he stands up to stretch and glances out through the glass.
Late night for Mr. Freni — maybe he got lucky — as Esteban catches sight of me, the thought runs across his face like the tickers in Times Square, clear enough for anyone to read it, superpowers or no. He nods at me, and reaches for the door.
I shake my head and incline it sideways toward Riverside Park. Going for a walk. He nods and smiles, to show that he knows what I mean. I turn and keep walking, still in my tuxedo and my raincoat, my tie loose now around my neck.
It’s dark under the trees in the park, but I can more than smell the river now. It caresses every sense but sight, a damp, almost animal presence, full of muscle and health. I link my hands and pull my arms behind my head to open up my chest a bit. I bounce on the balls of my feet once or twice, take a few steps, bend my knees. I jerk my head back, throw my arms wide, and lift off into the cool, damp, welcoming air.
First there are trees in the little margin of park below me. Then the Hudson River. In flight, you can feel the difference when there’s only water below you. It’s colder, and you tend to drop a little. You have to work harder.
The island of Manhattan makes its own weather: exhaust, hot stale air from the subway, buildings exhale, human bodies exhale. There’s a current of heat over the city, a complex heat with its own dry, sooty, human scent with as many notes as a good red wine, a scent like no other place I’ve been in the world. The heat is alive, like a wing: a hot, soft wing that lifts you up, easily, with the pigeons and the sparrows and the weightless, drifting deli bags, Thank you and Thank you! and I Heart NY.
Should I fly south toward Wall Street? Fly past the office and watch them clean up the terrace, sweep up the cocktail napkins and the plastic champagne flutes? No, I remember, someone might see me. I decide to head north instead, toward the George Washington Bridge. Even at this hour there’s traffic on the West Side Highway, but there’s still the fog and the night to conceal me from the early commuters.
As I get closer, my eyes begin to water from the sharp sooty air. I see the bridge. They’ve got the lights on. It’s beautiful. Right now, at this moment, no other human being on Earth sees it like I see it.
I turn east, into the sunrise, but the light is too strong and I’m getting tired. I head for home.
The Board takes the news the way we thought they would –that is, badly. The early negotiations surrounding the proposed transfer cause infighting, backstabbing, garden-variety office politics, problems and more problems. The media attention is relentless. The days grind by.
My final day in the office rolls around at last. Janine hands me the WSJ first thing. “You’re in the paper today,” she says.
“Freni Cleared in Powers Scandal,” reads the headline. It’s in the news summary column on the front page. I glance at the blurb underneath:
Michael Freni, who ten years ago overturned convention in the superhero industry by refusing to create a “secret identity,” today was cleared of wrongdoing in the investigation that resulted from his attempt to give away his powers. Story, page A4.
“It’s my last day in the office,” I tell her. “Can you come in around 5:30 this afternoon? I’ve got a few things I want to go over with you. Just don’t want to leave a lot of loose ends for whoever takes over.”
In my office I turn to page A4.
In 1996, with the superhero industry in a steep decline, Michael Freni made a name for himself by being the first to successfully apply a conventional business model to the practice of superheroing.
Still more controversial was his decision to “fight crime, oppose evil, save damsels, and rescue kittens” (as one typically irreverent early press release put it) under his own name, instead of using an alias and creating an elaborate public identity — both standard industry practices at the time.
In recent months, Mr. Freni has seen his business empire shrouded in scandal, as his attempt to give away his superpowers prior to his impending retirement generated claims of dangerous, defunct or malfunctioning powers, or, in many cases, of promised powers that were never delivered at all.
Mr. Freni was protected from liability by the terms of the giveaway. But while dissatisfied participants in the superpower sweepstakes had no legal recourse, the complaints led to an investigation into the possibility that Mr. Freni had defrauded former clients by claiming to exercise powers that were never real in the first place.
That investigation was settled today, with Mr. Freni cleared of all wrongdoing. Mr. Freni’s testimony throughout the proceedings provided a fascinating glimpse of the lonely life of a superhero. He portrayed in detail the long, unpredictable hours and incredible physical, mental, and emotional demands of his position. He also spoke of the difficulty of “connecting, in any real way, on any deeper level, with other human beings” and described himself as “utterly burned out” at age 37.
Most striking of all…
I toss the paper aside. I don’t care what was most striking of all. I’m retired, I don’t have to read boring press clippings about Michael Freni anymore.
Besides, I know what was so striking: my powerlessness. My insistence, in front of the cameras and the microphones and the eager eyes and ears, that I was just an ordinary man. That, though they evidently didn’t survive the process of transfer, the famous Freni superpowers were gone.
It was a painful moment. And even if I faked the powerlessness, the pain was real. It hurts, I guess, to be ordinary.
To be ordinary — me, Michael Freni. To make, for the rest of my life, only ordinary omelets.
Lucky there are no cameras in my kitchen.
At 5:30 there’s not so much to go over, after all. As she gets up to go, I ask Janine how she sees her future at the company.
“I’m sending out my resume,” she says.
“Really?” I say, surprised.
“You know how long these executive searches take.”
“You don’t want to coast till they hire someone?”
“No, and I don’t want to end up working for The Green Machine.”
“Oh, come on, they’re not gonna give it to The Green Machine!” Then I realize she’s kidding. She smiles, turns again. She reaches the door. I feel a beat of panic.
“Janine,” I say.
“Yes, Mr. Freni.” She pauses with her hand on the door handle, her face half-turned toward me, her eyes on the carpet.
For a moment we are both motionless. Never before, I think, have I frozen two people using no powers at all. It’s like a magic trick. Nothing up my sleeve but complete and utter helplessness. I can imagine the slogan the marketing people would dream up. Never before has a superhero done so much with so little… or so little with so much… Something like that.
Then I think: Just ask her, you jackass. I take a breath.
“Janine, would you like to get a beer with me?”
She lifts her head, looks at me, and smiles — no, she sort of… grins. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen her teeth. They are perfect — small and even and very, very white.
“I’ll just get my coat,” she says.
Kris Herndon has published short fiction in Silver Blade magazine; erotic fiction (under the pen name Charles White) in the forthcoming Saachi Green-edited “69 Stories” anthology; and non-fiction in Wired, Oprah, and other national magazines. She is a graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop.