Norman Lee Trout Wants to be Superman
Let’s picture this kid, Norman Lee Trout, and let’s say he’s our kid. The middle school aged child of us, the Sons and Daughters of the Midwest, because God knows Norman needs that right about now, to be welcomed into our fold. By way of introduction let’s say that we meet him at this very moment, as he’s just arrived to a classmate’s costume party. He’s out on the sidewalk peeking through a hedgerow, and our mop-headed, and maybe a bit too chunky boy-hero, is watching as the party host herself Mallory O’Brien welcomes Dracula and the Wolfman with an excited squeal. Mallory’s dragging a shimmery mermaid’s tail behind her, and her hair has been dyed an even deeper shade of auburn that’s not red-red but still makes you think of the cartoon movie. This group is standing out on her front porch in the fall gloom, amongst an array of fat, white columns, and they are effervescent in the expensive, store-bought costumes their parents purchased weeks ago.
Out on the pristine sidewalk, our spying boy has arrived huffing-and-puffing after an hour of shuffling across town. He is a raggedy version of Superman - the mop on his head is not jet black but dishwater blond, and it’s not peeled straight and waxy; it’s curly and uncombed, and his superhero suit is just an old t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants that are mismatched shades of blue. His Black-Sheep Daughter of the Midwest mother has hastily sewn a cape onto the shirt using a soiled maroon bed sheet, something Norman had to sheepishly beg her to do, and now it’s sporting a black ringed burn from the cigarette that had dangled from her lips as she worked. When it’s cherry fell onto the sheet and sizzled through the fabric, this gray skinned woman in her threadbare housecoat had erupted with laughter before collapsing back into her seat beneath a rush of violent, phlegmy coughing.
Back at the hedge, our dude waits with his hands on his knees trying to catch his own breath. After the little mermaid has shown in the monsters, he takes one last big gulp of air, squints hard, wipes the sweat from his forehead, and rises with his chest puffed up. He struts through the open gate, clutching the invitation Mallory’s parents demanded she distribute to the entire seventh grade. On it, his name is misspelled. When he knocks, she answers the door, groans an actual, for-real groan, and drags him through the crowd to a steel folding chair in the den, the only empty room in the house.
Unfazed, he sits upright and rigid; his superhero threads blanketed by the cheap cigarette smell of his mother’s pack-a-day habit. He is filled with a hopeful anticipation but waits quietly, alone in the room but for a table of snacks. An hour after depositing him there, Mallory returns, and to Norman’s delight, this time she is dragging behind her Virginia, the sad and modest girl that sits two rows over from him in their Ohio History class.
Oh man, does his heart swell.
Virginia is dressed glumly, in an old chicken suit with holes in it and no mask up top. Together, they wear the cheapest costumes at the party. As Mallory plunks her down and flees the room, Virginia sits in the emptiness with our boy-wonder, and her lips curl in a stifled grin.
Once, in class, Norman had spotted Virginia smiling like this while spying on him from beneath a textbook.
Now she is sitting right next to him, outside of school, alone in this quiet nook of the party, and it is both melting his heart and disintegrating his superhero veneer like kryptonite. What happened to the words that had rattled in his head on the long walk to the party? Where are the carefully curated questions he had prepared which would surely impress Virginia and pull her into their very first conversation where she would fall smack down on her face in love with him? He can’t find them anymore, not now that her live body is in the room with him. His confidence shatters like the potato chip crumbs in his lap. That little puff in his chest as he strolled through the gate? Gone, with a heavy exhale that’s got him feeling like a sunken stone.
Norman’s got a dad he’s never met. On days when his old man calls the house to talk to his mom, he’ll grab a bag of chips and go hand-to-mouth as she sprays obscenities at that Bastard Son of the Midwest. When the deadbeat eventually gives up and hangs up his end of the line, she’ll turn to Norman and keep the insults flying, as though what was once started could never be ended prematurely. Today, in the time it had taken for Virginia to arrive, he’d nervously raided a nearby bowl of the sour cream and onion kind and now there are greasy stains where he’d wiped his fingers on his sweatpants. Embarrassed by their gleam and how they suddenly make him conscious of the soft layers of fat that, despite his age, are already settling around his waist and poking out from under his size-too-small sweatshirt, he uses the cape to conceal them.
Music and shouting drifts in from the surrounding rooms and the two fidget on squeaky metal chairs. They watch the slow shift of partygoers wind around the edges of the den, each one of them careful to not step inside.
Occasionally these two outcast’s eyes meet by accident and their cheeks fill with the fire engine red his cape ought to be.
For what feels like hours he tries to think like Clark Kent. Tries to imagine what Peter Parker or Barry Allen might say here, what they might do here, but his shoulders start to slump; he’s feeling less like a hero as each minutes passes. He gets desperate, clears his throat every few minutes to try and hold her attention. He’s never been to church, but in his mind he starts to say small prayers that she won’t leave and try her luck with the rest of the party. He closes his eyes and mumbles these invocations to himself, and he doesn’t even realize how much time he’s wasted until he checks his plastic wristwatch and speaks their first sad, nervous words of the night.
“I have to go,” our young buddy tells her.
Virginia has spent the entire party in silence with him and is now staring at the floor and takes a long time to reply. In the quiet of the den, with the party around them seemingly reaching its crescendo, he nearly panics trying to remain still as he waits for her response. His faith crumbles, and he rises uncomfortably and begins to lumber out of the room.
“I’ll wait outside with you,” she replies at last, and as they leave the emptiness of their shared space, she nervously takes his hand in her own.
Our partner tries to play it cool but he feels blood vessels bulging; he gets dizzy. His head is lighter than the orange and black balloons that float in the corners of the house. Together they shuffle through the crowd with their heads down and their fingers interlaced.
He is thirteen. For a second, love is this exceptionally simple.
Near the front door, Corbin, a well-liked older boy despite a penchant for getting caught setting fires in the dumpster behind the school and a history as a tattle-tale, has his attention aroused by the sight of the two walking hand in hand. He’s a bad guy, and our young man knows it right away. He approaches the pair and this villain stares downward at the boy whose powers have faded all night, who feels weak and dizzy from the sting of Cupid’s bow. Our guy stops, kind of freezes. He swings his eyes down, squirms where he stands like he knows what’s coming and that’s all the invitation this bad dude needs to step between the two, break up the hand-holding, and wrap Virginia up from behind and the whole thing’s all so indecent. Corbin chokes out a boorish laugh as she squirms in his arms, feet kicking in the air. He is spinning her, the crowd around them laughing nervously with unknown expectation, too afraid, just as Norman is, to do anything about it. As he drags her into another crammed room, further into the party’s mass (a crowd of giddy young boys and cowed little girls) Virginia struggles to orient herself and searches for our boy with big panicky eyes. Before she is swallowed by a surging group of classmates, she notices his cape, snagged on the frame of the front door that is being slammed shut. Its lazy stitching has given way with ease.
Outside, cool autumn air rushes into our kid’s lungs. Under a black sky, fallen orange leaves glow from the streetlights. A chipmunk is standing on the path with an acorn and he sort of coos, chucks the nut at him and hurries under the hedge. A rusted hatchback is parked at the curb, a rumbling eyesore here on elegant Fawn Haven Terrace; his mother waits inside in a ratty bathrobe. He is vibrating with a shame that runs hot over his entire body. His insides have started churning and when he hears Virginia call for him from deep in the house he runs across the lawn on legs that feel like deflated balloons and he slips on the wet, dead leaves. He collapses and crashes into the car.
His mother is already laughing at him when he gets in, having watched his desperate escape. “What’s the matter, your girlfriend dump you?” she teases and then coughs out the same vulgar laugh as the boy from inside.
At school the next week Corbin will show up with a pair of black eyes and an eviscerated social status, both courtesy of Virginia, but she’ll ask Norman, our Maybe-Someday-But-Not-Quite-Yet Saint of the Midwest, with tears in her eyes why he didn’t come after her. He’ll lie to her; try to throw his own indignity back on her. He’ll tell her he thought she was giggling, and say, “Weren’t you smiling? I thought maybe you knew that guy. I thought maybe you wanted to go with him.” It will be the last time she speaks to him. It will chew at his empty and idle moments for years. It will be his last chance, for a very long time, to be brave.
For now he is slouched into the passenger seat watching the wind pluck leaves from the trees; he’s following their tumbling descent to the ground. He thinks of the day Virginia smiled at him in class, and he replays her pathetic cry for him as he ran from the party on legs that carried him much, much slower than a speeding bullet. His mother has gone quiet, and they head back to their side of town in a heavy, demeaning silence.
The car rattles badly and Norman bounces in his seat for most of the way while the vibrations send uncontrollable ripples through his soft midsection. His mother, as she always does, begins to soften. “I’m sorry for teasing,” she tells him as they get closer to home. “I saved a Coke for you in the fridge.” It’s as nice a thing as she knows to do for him.
For reasons he’s unsure of tears begin to tumble from Norman’s unblinking eyes. Our pal doesn’t even realize his cape is gone until he reaches for it to wipe them away.
About the Author: Scott Klingbeil is 36 and lives in Cleveland where he grew up as a 7-Foot Tall Son of the Midwest. He works in banking, coaches some basketball on occasion, raises his daughter and Bernese Mountain Dog with his wife Jill, and reads and writes as often as he can.