Mario agreed to drop me off at my apartment on the way back to the office. I couldn’t go back to the party smelling like sewage. After taking a shower, there’d be no reason to take public transportation back there. I’d only have to turn around and take public transportation back home shortly thereafter. This wasn’t an issue for Mario. He lived across the street from the office. He could shower and rejoin the festivities in no time. Because of the late hour, I texted Chuck that I wouldn’t be able to make it to his thing either. The game had already started after all. Some 40th birthday this was turning out to be!
That night I found myself standing in the shower, not washing - just questioning every decision I’d ever made and asking myself existential questions. It’s never a good day when you’re asking yourself Who am I? What am I doing here? Am I really a man? Or just the shadow of another man?
I thought about when I was 17 years old. Lindsay Wilder seemed to be really into me. We had really hit it off but neither of us seemed willing to make the first move to making anything official. She was shy. She was beautiful. And witty - once you got her talking. Why should she be responsible for making the first move? What was I thinking? One day Michael Donohue asked her to the prom and we just sort of stopped talking after that. I looked her up on Facebook a while back. She married an orthodontist, moved to Australia, and does humanitarian work with the aborigines. How life could have been so different for both of us if I asked her out. Dang!
I thought about the year after high-school. Mario had taken a job as a carpenter’s apprentice. I went to work at Papa T’s bakery. Papa T was our name for Tony Bartoli, the man who raised us. I loved baking. I had been around it my whole life. I was saving up money to go to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. Maybe I’d start my own bakery after that. But Mario met a plumber at a construction site who was making a ton of money. Mario came to me that night and told me all the money we could make as plumbers and how expensive the Culinary Institute was and all the reasons why becoming a baker was a bad idea. I pointed out all the reasons why I’d rather not be a plumber. One month later, I was spending my days at a trade-school learning plumbing with Mario. Dang!
I thought about that time last year when Big Apple Plumbing and Heating offered me a job with them doing the same thing I’m doing now but earning 50% more and actually getting benefits. I turned them down because I knew it would break Mario’s heart if I left. And now Mario Brothers Plumbing was going under. Dang!
I thought about all the hundreds of times throughout my entire life people had asked me, “Aren’t you Mario’s brother?” Dang!
What would I be in 10 years? An unmarried, 50 year old plumber? Was that all my life would ever be? Dang!
I thought about Pauline. But then again, when was I ever not thinking about Pauline. Dang! Dang! Dang!
The shower could not rinse away the funk I was feeling. I hit my shower curtain in a rage. Immediately, the shower curtain burst into flames. What the…!!! There was a large hole where I hit the curtain and the rest was on fire! Toxic, black smoke was rising from the melting plastic of the inner curtain. I tried to aim the shower head at it but that wasn’t working. I yanked the curtain down before it set the ceiling of fire. The whole bar and flaming curtains came crashing down on me as I fell into the tub, hitting my head against the wall. The flaming curtain burned my skin slightly. Thank God the shower put it out before it could do more damage. I felt my head. There was blood on my fingers.
Standing up in the shower, I tried to make sense of what had just happened. I began to suspect the turtle thing hadn’t spit fire at me after all. But if the fire came from me….How? How could fire come from me? I looked at my hand. No burns there. I aimed my hand outward to see if anything would happen. Even though I had just set my shower curtain on fire, I was still skeptical. But now nothing was happening. I concentrated. Or well, scrunched my face up like I was concentrating anyhow. I didn’t know what I was supposed to concentrate on - if anything. With that failing to produce any results, I flung my hand out like I had when I hit the curtain. This time the space between me and the towel rack ignited. It worked! Oh crap! It worked! Now the towels were on fire! I was about to burn down the whole apartment building!
In an attempt to jump out of the tub to address this new emergency, I slipped again and fell face-first onto the bathroom floor. I was able to soften the blow with my arms. The flames were starting to lick the ceiling. I got up as fast as I could, cupped my hands under the shower water, and flung it at the flames like an idiot. Of course it did nothing. I reached out and grabbed the bottom of one of the towels and was able to yank it off the rack. The towel flicked my foot as it came loose, adding to my number of small burns. I tossed the towel in the still-running shower where it sizzled and smoked and finally extinguished. There was not as open a spot on the other towel to grab. This one was almost completely engulfed. And now the ceiling was on fire! I had no choice. I grabbed the towel with my bare hands and threw it in the shower. I quickly retrieved the first towel, which was now soaked and cool, and started whacking the flames on the ceiling with it. It worked. The fire was out. But now my bathroom was full of smoke and burn spots. Fortunately the vent in the bathroom was on, otherwise the smoke would have set off an alarm - in which case I’d have to explain what happened. But what did happen? I looked at my hands that should have been burnt to a crisp. They were fine. No burns whatsoever. I guess that made sense. If fire was emanating from my palms, why would fire burn them.
I had to test the extent of my….what do I call it? Abilities? Powers? Was I now a superhero? It occurred to me then how absurd all those superhero movies were. Just because you have a unique ability - like being able to shoot fire from your hands - could not realistically qualify you to be a hero. What on earth would I shoot fire at? There’s no such thing as supervillains. Real life villains were terrorists and criminals and people that took advantage of others. What was I supposed to do? Somehow find some person involved in illegal activity and burn them to death? Absurd! The thought sickened me. And besides, I would not want to be anywhere near someone I needed to take lethal action against. No, I was not a superhero. Heck, I’m easily defeated by my own melancholy contemplations.
I slipped on a Polo and some khakis and made my way down to the alley on the side of my building, anxious to test these powers. Only a few dim lights over doors lit the dark alleyway. I walked the entire length, making sure there were no homeless guys sleeping under newspapers. I’d hate to accidentally catch someone with a fireball.
When I was sure that it was clear, I thrust my arm out backhanded as I had done now three times before. Sure enough, fire exploded from my hand. It wasn’t like a flamethrower. The fire did not continue to emanate. It really was a fireball. Unlike the little ones like you see the witch throwing in The Wizard of Oz, this was an enormous blast - about the size of a basketball but with a long tail of flame. And it was fast! It fizzled out about 50 yards ahead of me - just before hitting a building. The light of the fireball lit the whole alley.
This time I aimed at a wall and swung my arms like I was pitching a fastball. That movement worked. A fireball slammed into the wall and dispersed, leaving a black spot. Good. I was a little scared after I threw it that it might be strong enough to break bricks.
Now I wanted to try my left hand. Would that work? And was there enough force in the fireball to knock things over? I aimed at some trash cans and let the fire fly. Cool. Both hands work. But I totally missed the cans. Back to the right hand. This time I was dead on. The trash cans went flying! Not only that but they were all bent out of shape and some of the trash, now littering the ground, was on fire.
This racket got the attention of the neighbors. A curmudgeonly old woman wearing curlers burst out of one of the doors with all the violence of one of my fireballs. “What’s all this noise!” she demanded. She looked around at the destruction. “Get out of here, you punk! I’m calling the cops!” She pulled a phone from her robe pocket. Dang! I took off. “Yeah! You better run!! Butt-head!!” she yelled after me.
Adrenaline was pumping through my veins. It felt good. I was alive! I may not be a superhero but for the first time in my life I could do something no one else could. I had something that people might actually care about. As I rode the elevator back up to my floor, I tried to think of how this could possibly be happening to me. And then something clicked.
After exiting the elevator, I bee-lined it to the washing machine in my apartment, pulled out my nasty overalls, and started digging around in all the pockets. Yes! There it was! In the chest pocket. The flower from the sewer. It was pretty squashed by now and still lacking any sort of glow. This must have been what did it. It was glowing until I touched it. What if the glow was the power. What if that power went into me? I had to protect this flower until I could learn more about it. What could I keep it in? I looked through my cabinets and drawers and closet and finally found an empty ring box. That would work perfectly.
It was then that I called Pauline.
“Happy Birthday, Luigi.” It was good to hear her voice but she sounded a little preoccupied.
“Oh, right. Yeah,” I said. “Thanks. I actually forgot it was my birthday.”
“How could you forget? Didn’t you have a party?”
“Thank you for that, by the way. That was very kind.” I said.
“Why are you thanking me?” She still seemed preoccupied. What was she doing?
“Hey,” I said. “Are you home?”
“Me and Mario ran into a real strange animal in the sewers today and I wanted to know if you’ve ever seen anything like it before.”
“Well, tell me what it looked like. I’ll let you know right now.”
“Well, it’s more than that. Something happened.”
“Is everything alright?” Now I had her full attention.
“Everything’s fine. But I need to show you something. It’s...you just have to see it for yourself.”
“I’m at the zoo working with Kong. And the zoo’s been closed for hours. Can it wait till next week?” she asked. Kong was what they called one of the apes there at the Bronx Zoo. This one in particular made quite a stir a few months back when it was found loose in New York City. I’m sure you can imagine the fright that put some people in. No one knows where it came from. The best guess is that it got loose from an exotic pet smuggler.
“Next week?” I asked. “Why so long?”
“I hit the campaign trail tomorrow. I speak in Manhattan tomorrow and have a press tour after that.” Dr. Pauline Keyes is not only a smart and beautiful zoologist. She is also a smart and beautiful city council woman who was running for governor.
“It won’t take long. I promise.” I said. “Can you let me in? It’s important to me that you see this.”
“Ok. Sure. Text me when your close. I’ll have Charlie let you in.”
A half hour later Charlie was escorting me to a room in the zoo the public does not usually get to see. A third of the way into the room was a set of bars like in a jail cell that prevented the animals from accessing this first part of the room. Pauline was on the other side of the bars with the ape. Charlie motioned her direction. “Dr. Keyes and Dr. Keyes’ Kong,” he said as if introductions were needed.
Pauline turned to face me but was immediately distracted as the ape grunted out a noise that almost sounded like words.
“Doh-kee kon,” it said.
“Oh my God! Did he just copy you?” asked Pauline, astonished.
“Doh-kee kon,” it said again.
Pauline, looking the ape in the eye and pointing to herself, said slowly, “Dr. Keyes.”
“Doh-kee,” it said. It was repeating english words like a parrot! Amazing!
She now pointed at Kong. “And you are…” But the ape interrupted.
“Doh-kee kon! Doh-kee kon! Doh-kee kon!” The ape was pounding its chest in excitement.
“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Pauline asked me and Charlie.
“It’s repeating syllables,” pointed out Charlie.
“Sounds like he’s saying Donkey Kong,” I said. Stupid. What a dumb thing to say around a couple scientists!
“I think it’s more than repeating,” Pauline said. “I think it recognizes those syllables as names.” She pointed at me. “Luigi,” she said. She pointed at Charlie. “Dr. Irvine.” She kept looking back to Kong to see if he had any reactions. He did not. She pointed to herself and before she could say anything, the ape grunted out, “Doh kee!”.
Pauline chuckled with delight. She now pointed at the ape. “Doh-kee kon! Doh-kee kon! Doh-kee kon!” It was pounding its chest again, apparently pleased to have excited Pauline.
“This is amazing!” Pauline said. “I can’t go tomorrow. We’ve just made a history making discovery! There’s so much we have to test! We’ve got to film this!”
“You’ll be back in a week. He’s not going anywhere,” I tried to encourage her. “You don’t want to miss out on your dreams. You have to hit the press circuit like you planned.”
“It’s just extraordinary!” She said. Now to the ape. “You deserve a banana, Donkey Kong.” The ape turned in a circle with delight as she tossed it a banana . “Looks like you gave him a new name, Luigi,” she said.
“So, you got a sec?” I asked.
“Sure. What’s up?” She came through the gate to my side of the room.
“Let’s go outside,” I said. “I can’t show you in here.”
“Why not? Did you bring the animal here?”
“Good heavens, no! That thing was vicious!” I noticed Charlie was still standing by so I whispered in Pauline’s ear. “I can shoot fire from my hands.”
“You can shoot fire from your…?” She looked at my rear.
“No! Hands! I said hands!”
“I couldn’t understand you. You were whispering for some reason. You could have shouted it from the rooftops, I still wouldn’t be able to catch the euphemisms you’re throwin’ down. What does that even mean?”
“Can we just go outside? I’ll show you there.”
She acquiesced and a moment later we were standing in the parking lot. Before starting my little demonstration, I had better tie my shoe first. I’d hate to trip while launching a deadly fireball. Pauline stood by patiently. That taken care of, I removed the ring box from my pocket before getting back up. He eyes nearly bulged out of her head.
“What! Are you crazy! No. Just no!” Pauline said, frazzled, irritated, and walking away - a reaction I couldn’t understand at first. And then I realized what it looked like.
“No. Wait!” I called after her.
“No. Just go.” she replied.
“It’s not a ring! It’s a flower. It’s science.” That stopped her. She turned back toward me and let me walk to her. “Why would I propose to you?” Foot in mouth! Dang! “That’s not what I mean. Never mind.” I suck at recoveries. Dang!
“You ever seen a flower like this before?” I asked. She looked at it briefly.
“I’m sorry I reacted that way,” she said. “I just thought...I’m sure you understand.”
“Oh, right. Totally. But what about the flower?”
“I don’t know. I don’t really study flowers.”
“No. But you study animals. And the food they eat.”
“You think the animal you saw was eating this? Why are you so curious about this animal anyway?”
“I don’t know if it was eating it for sure. It was stuck in a pipe. The animal, that is. And under the pipe was the flower. I think maybe it pooped out the seed and it grew.”
“In the sewer? The Animal was stuck long enough for a seed to grow into a flower?”
“I don’t know! But when I tell you the rest of the story, anything will seem believable. The flower was glowing! As soon as I picked it up, it stopped glowing and I could suddenly shoot fire from my hands.” She was skeptical. Who could blame her? “Watch,” I said.
I thrust my arm out. Nothing happened. I tried again. Nothing.
“What?” I muttered, fearful of being crushed to death by my own humiliation. “I don’t know why it’s not working now but I swear less than an hour ago I was shooting fire.” I tried several more times. Each time serving to make me look more the fool.
“Oh my God!” Pauline said, cuffing her mouth.
“Your head! You’re bleeding!”
“Yeah, I hit it in the shower after accidentally setting my bathroom on fire.”
“No wonder you’re talking such nonsense. You’ve got to get to the ER.”
“What? No! It’s not a big deal. And I’m not talking nonsense. Ask Mario. He saw me throw fire at the … the thing.”
“Get in my car. I’m taking you to the ER,” she demanded.
Could the mortification get any worse? I thought I’d come here, show her my first ever something-interesting and maybe even see if she wanted to join me for dinner at Delvecios tomorrow. We were all friends, right? It wouldn’t be that awkward that Mario would be there with another girl, would it? No need to wonder about that now. Pauline thought I slipped in the shower, hit my head, and was now delusional. What the heck! And then there was that whole embarrassment with the ring box. Good Lord!
On the ride up to the hospital, she could tell I was unhappy about her not believing me. She tried breaking the silence with questions about the creature in the sewer. I don’t know if she was patronizing me but she seemed really interested in my descriptions of it. It felt good to capture her attention. But her attention is all I’d ever get from her. I thought again about Lindsay Wilder. And the world spun on. Ever on. Dang!
Little did I know that in less than 24 hours, the world would spin the opposite direction.