featuring THE CONDUCTOR
created and written by H.H. NEVILLE
I watched him retire. I was a cherub-cheeked ginger then; my voice hadn’t even deepened. Youthful ideals bubbled into watery meniscuses over my eyes until they burst, streaming down my freckled face. It was a sad day. Even the usually bright TV screen seemed morose, dim; weeping loudly, distorted and full of static.
This was no Lou Gehrig farewell. There was no valiant speech, or reflection of a Hall of Fame career. It was no VJ Day parade through the streets with rag-top Caddys pulling heroes through a narrow cavern of swooning human beings under a heavy snow of streamers.
I didn’t know him then as I do now. No one did and it didn’t even matter; he was family. We knew he would do anything in his colossal power to protect us, protect our city.
When he needed us to return the favor, we refused.
Carrion was heaped in neck high piles and the funeral pyres burned wild.
The carnage had ended and a clear victor sat his throne atop the dead. Unsatisfied this new King sought to add one last corpse.
Hampton Means took city mayor. It was a bloodbath.
A savvy politico, he convinced the people that the dangers larger cities like San Francisco and New York were now facing with “science villains,” were a short time away. Maybe a year, a month, a week, tomorrow. His lightning rod was our own science hero, “The Human Locomotive,” the Conductor.
He said the Conductor was catnip to villainy, only a matter of time. It didn’t matter that he’d never hurt anyone, and only been a beacon of good. It wasn’t his fault, that’s just how it was. The way of the world.
The Cape Riots fresh in everybody’s minds, it was the perfect platform.
Even mom voted for him. Said she did it for my safety. I felt betrayed.
It only took two months for the “Means Act” to be enacted, and the Conductor went from an admired personality and loved protector of our city to a “vigilante.” They told him to turn in his mask and admit his identity to the authorities or leave the city forever.
Mom said she’d take me to the Retirement Gala the city was throwing in his honor so I could say a final goodbye to my childhood hero.
She put it on the TV over dinner anyway and for some reason I watched it with her.
It was the middle of Pioneer Square, with the Firemen’s Memorial hinted at in the background. There was a glass podium adorned with an official city seal and three posed microphones. To each side were large blown up photos of the Conductor; smiling wide below shiny copper goggles and bole half-mask that covered his upper skull. He wasn’t a big man, about six-one and amply built; just athletic enough to look the part in his matching auburn body suit that covered him neck to toe with copper pinstripes in patches on his ribs. Beside those were several seats filled with city officials, judges and even Means.
The local broadcast kept cameras on them. Thirty minutes went by, an hour. Means and his cronies seemed visibly annoyed, started to sweat, watched the little hand tick away on their watches. For two hours the cameras were fixed, waiting. Eventually they switched over to some sitcoms, already in progress.
The Conductor, “The Man Who Couldn’t be Stopped,” didn’t. He left; turned away from us – as we had done to him – and never came back.
There were rumors that he’d go down a few states to LA and fought crime there. They didn’t mind Capes; they even had their own team there.
I knew better. The city he had loved broke his heart.
Three years later, I was about eleven then, and in a spot of trouble. Late for dinner after six hours at my favorite arcade tucked inside Pier 57 and seeking a stern lecture from mom.
I decided it would be quicker not to wait for the Waterfront trolley, instead huffing it around the International District into Beacon Hill. I knew a few shortcuts to make the trip quicker, cutting through narrow berths and sprinting knotted alleyways. The sun bubbled away like a fried egg under the evening sky; a pumpkin orange yolk and indigo whites. It was getting dark, real objects turned black lost their shape, became shadows.
“Hey, kid, hold on, a sec.”
They were just shadows, too.
“Yeah, I think you dropped this,” the voice came again.
I turned, gullible young kid. I still believed my city was as good as when the Conductor watched over it.
It’s funny, I don’t really remember their faces that well. I just remember when they finally stepped out of the shadows, the two of them looked like they meant to hurt me.
I do remember the baseball bat they had with them. A Junior Carolina Clubs, the upper two-thirds painted shiny acrylic black, and the lower third blond hardwood.
My eyes started to water and my teeth chattered. I knew right away, I’d been duped and that this was bad news. Worse than being late for dinner.
“All right kid, hand over your wallet,” demanded the one with the bat. “I’d hate to get my bat here a little messy.”
“But–but–I–don’t have anything,” I tried to protest, scared.
“Whatever, kid, I saw you dropping coins into the arcade all day.”
I reached into my back pocket, returned with wallet feebly in hand. “I may ha–have some bus money, I think.”
“See, that’s something, ain’t it? That’d buy me some smokes.”
I said nothing, just held the dollar store red Saturday morning cartoon wallet out toward them.
“You just lied to me kid. That’s bad, real bad.”
“Is this what my city is these days?” A third voice entered the narrow alley, from behind.
The small-time crooks spun one-eighty.
They started laughing real hard. Between them I could see hints of another man. He looked decently built, a broad shouldered man, showing signs of age; his cheeks had begun to sag into jowls and a bit of a paunch showed beneath his clothing. His dark hair was fading; speckled with grey. He favored his right leg with a slight lean.
“You want some of us, old man?” The man without the bat bantered; his voice still giggly.
“Take all of me you want, leave the kid alone, got it?”
“Sure, whatever you say, Pops.”
The thugs charged him, two-on-one. The one with the bat took his best Reggie Jackson and swung.
I closed my eyes, couldn’t watch.
I heard the muffled explosion of wood against skull and body hit the ground.
I wearily opened them again.
The two thugs were prone, unconscious on the pavement behind the stranger, old enough to be my father.
He held my wallet out in front of me, smiling wide.
“Don’t want to forget this, son.” I took it from him, still shocked. “Are you okay to make it home?”
“Y–y–you said ‘your city?'”
That was the day I met him, the Conductor. It was so weird to think of him as old enough to be my dad. As we got to know each other over the next few years, though, it felt more comfortable.
He didn’t like going out in public any more. The city felt different, not like the good ol’ days. He had me fetch his groceries twice a week so he could stay in.
We’d sit and talk. He’d tell me stories and I’d ask questions. When I asked him, “What have you done all these years after you retired (neither of us felt comfortable with the word ‘quit’)?” He answered in his simple, sensical style: “The only thing a none-too-bright, out-of-work science hero with part of an English degree can do…write pulps.”
I’d even read some of them before. They weren’t very good.
He taught me how to solve for x in proportionate fractions, throw a curveball, which frequencies the blues used for dispatch and that it didn’t matter if a man had super strength, he would never be able to pull a ferry out of the Sound; not enough size, mass or evenly distributed torque. Whatever he pulled on would snap off in his hands. He learned that the hard way, he said.
Two weeks before my fourteenth birthday, I hit puberty. Voice cracked, hair on my chest; the usual. I chalked up the swollen muscles and burning beneath the skin part of “growing into a man.”
The pain got to be too much one day. I knew something was wrong. I collapsed in the shower, it felt like something was tearing apart my chest from the inside and it was. Gobs of flesh flaked from my chest, sticky and wet. Streams of shower spray masked my tears, but could not mask my screams. Mom’s screams soon joined from the inverse of the door. She was pounding, begging to be let in. I couldn’t face her, didn’t know how to face her. I didn’t know what was going on. I just knew I didn’t feel safe; not in my own body.
I snubbed tears into my forearm, and put my clothes on quickly, still damp. I just wanted to be safe. I could only think of one place. I opened the door, sprinted past my mother. She called for me, crying. I wish she could help, but I knew she couldn’t. Eventually, when she saw the bathroom, she knew she couldn’t either; mixed chunks of human flesh in various states of turning to metal littered the floor and tub like molted feathers.
He answered the door, saw me in tatters. He said nothing, picked up the pieces and brought me inside.
We didn’t talk. He looked over my steel skin, his eyes moist. Mine slowly dried. When he was done, he put a hand over my damp scalp. It was the most certain touch I’d ever felt.
“It’ll be okay,” he said. “It’ll be okay, it’ll be okay.” He just kept repeating those words until I believed him, stilled.
“What do I do?”
“I don’t have all the answers for you, son; I’m sorry.” He left me, walked toward his cellar steps; his voice growing faint as he dipped below. “But I have something that’ll help.”
Under a handful of minutes, he came slowly back up the stairs, a plain wooden shoebox under his arm.
“Not the best security system ever,” he chuckled; handed me the box. “But I pity the crook that comes across this old man.”
He nodded for me to open it.
I removed the lid, placed it carefully to the love seat cushion. Under a brown velvet sleeve, was a vision of my youth, I was so terrified of losing. A ruddy brown leather half-mask, gold hooped goggles sewn into them.
I looked at him, disbelieving. He was smiling wide as always.
“It’s yours now.”