Friday, August 23, 2019

What’s Your Superpower?

a short story by Bill Adler

Kathy poked at her meat loaf with her fork, as if she were testing the temperature of a swimming pool with her toes. She looked both anxious and apprehensive as she let her fork hover over the plate, before it dropped like a divining rod into the mashed potatoes.

“Good choice,” Abe said.

“Sometimes I want to save the potatoes for last. It’s a toss up, you know what I mean? Eat the food you’re not favoring first, then the good stuff becomes dessert. But the danger is you’ll fill up and won’t have room for dessert.” Kathy consumed two forkfuls of potatoes, letting a few peas along for the ride. “Mmm. Diners are god.” She sliced into her meatloaf with the edge of the fork, took a bite and said, “Speaking of which, “I can drive a thirty-foot truck in reverse. I register voters. I ask random strangers if they’re registered to vote, and if they say ‘no’ I sign them up real quick. And, most powerful of all, I can drink flat tonic water.”

Abe smiled at Kathy while he swirled his spaghetti around his fork. “I have hindsight. I’m a foster cat dad. I grow tomatoes on my balcony.”

“You going to share some tomatoes with me?”

“When we get back, you can have as many as you desire.”

Christopher, who was sitting next to Kathy opposite me in the booth, rang his water glass with the side of his spoon. “Ah hem.” He cleared his throat. “I can function on little or no sleep. I get ready for work in twenty minutes flat, and that includes brushing my teeth. And I’m able to insert a USB stick into a USB drive the correct way every time.”

“Ooo,” Abe said, “That USB thing is a superpower I wished I had.”

It was my turn. “I’m a redhead. I can walk down the aisle of a moving train without holding onto other people’s seats and not fall into anyone’s lap. I can rid my brain of earworms with a single thought.”

Abe, Kathy, Christopher, and I played What’s Your Superpower? whenever we stopped for a meal during our cross country road trip. What’s Your Superpower? isn’t the most inspired group game, but it’s more fun than Twenty Questions, Memory, or Would you Rather? Our superpowers were fanciful, funny, clever and sometimes poignant. In What’s Your Superpower? you can have any superpower, as long as it’s not a real one like Superman or the Flash. And, most importantly,  playing What’s Your Superpower? distracted my friends from their other pastime: ridiculing me for wearing a dive watch.

When you wear a dive watch, you have
powers beyond imagination. Photo by
Samuel Chan from the Grand SeikoOwners Club.
It was gentle ribbing, but the words still stung. “Are you going to bungee jump into the Pacific?” (That was from Christopher.) “You won’t need lead weights around your scuba suit; your watch is big enough to carry you down.” (Abe’s spoken thoughts.) About five hundred miles ago we stopped to get water bottles and Milky Way bars at a 7-11. It was drizzling. “I volunteer Dan to go out in the rain to pick up supplies. He’s got the dive watch,” Kathy said.

I should have expected the ribbing, because they’re right. Who needs a watch that’s water resistant to 1000 meters when the wettest I’m going to get my watch is a shower’s gentle drizzle. I’m no diver. I can’t even remember the last time I swam in a pool or waded into the ocean. (In my defense, redheads visit the beach at their own peril.) I bought this beautiful, British technological marvel of a watch because it’s fun. There’s nothing wrong with having fun. The Christopher Ward C60 Trident Elite 1000’s dial is one of the most gorgeous blues I’ve ever laid eyes on. The blue bezel reminds me photographs I’ve seen of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral. The watch is fashioned out of titanium, the same stuff they use to make submarines, which means it’s impervious to nearly everything, including shark bites — not that I’d ever get closer to a shark than at an aquarium —  and it keeps great time, too.

I was eating a tuna melt sandwich and drinking a Diet Coke at Tim’s Joint, the diner off I-40 a few miles from Flagstaff, Arizona we had stopped at, when Christopher put his burger down, pointed to my watch, and blurted out, “You can dive 1000 meters underwater without a scuba tank. That’s your superpower.”

I was tired because I had driven the last two-hour shift, and was admittedly a tad cranky, plus the tuna melt was too heavy on the mayo. “You know, Christopher. I like my watch. It’s a good watch. Solid, reliable, from a company that’s working hard to ensure its place in horology. It’s even good looking. So what if I don’t dive? People who don’t get into water deeper than their bathtubs are allowed to wear diving watches. You don’t have to be a pilot to wear a pilot’s watch. You don’t have to be a race car driver to strap a Tag Heuer Carerra to your wrist. Or Sir Edmond Hillary to wear a Rolex.”

“Whoa.” Christopher raised his arms above his head. “Chill, Dan.”

“I’m not the one who’s mocking a friend’s watch. I don’t need to chill.” 

“Sorry, man. It is a nice watch. And that company —”

“Christopher Ward. They’re British.”

“I like it. Look, you can wear your watch and I’ll try not to joke about it for the rest of the trip, k?”

“Just try?”

“It’s hot in —”

“Arizona. We’re in Arizona now.”

“Wherever. I might slip. So I’ll try not to poke fun at the fact you’re wearing a deep diver in the desert where it never rains.”

I glanced at Abe who was laser focused on one single string of spaghetti and then at Kathy, who was arranging the peas in her Blue Plate Special into a line. 

“Look, if this is about Keiko —”

Christopher bit his lip. “That was eleven years ago. We had just broken up. I didn’t care you dated my ex. It was college, man. That kind of thing happened all the time.” A vein pulsed on his forehead. 

Kathy and Abe knew all this, of course. We’d been close friends in college, and shared an off campus house together for a semester. Kathy and Abe had dated, too, the year before. Kathy and Abe were fine; I thought Christopher and I were, as well. Losing Jennifer and then my dating Jennifer was no big deal to Christopher; he’d already been through another two girlfriends by the time I got around to asking Jennifer, my one and only college girlfriend, out. I guess Chris and I were okay, and I was looking at the world through a prism made of crankiness. 

But damn, he was mocking my dive watch. I was tired of it. I took a deep breath and counted to five. “I’m sorry. I think I’m dehydrated. I apologize.”

My pulse slowed as Christopher smiled. The vein in his forehead vanished.

Always wear your dive watch, because you never know
when you'll be called into service. Photo by Pat Pat Chu.
I looked around the diner, wondering how many people had witnessed our drama. Only the waitress, cashier and old woman seated two booths away, who was staring at us. She looked to be in her eighties, dressed in a wrinkled, brown work shirt, blue jeans — and when she stood up I saw — moccasins. She caught my eye, and walked slowly over to our table, carrying a flat red, yellow, gold and blue, painted wooden stick, about a foot long with triangles on both sides. It looked like a colorful, decorated ruler with feathers tied to the ends. 

She was a native American. Hopi, I guessed, given that Hopi is the predominant tribe in Arizona, though I didn’t know for sure. She stopped in front of our table and locked eyes with me. An uncomfortable chill cascaded down my spine, but I didn’t know what I should do about it. “Nice watch. Good for the rain.” She turned to the window where a spider ran up and across the glass before disappearing into the Venetian blinds. 

The vintage, neon sign above the counter that said, HOME, flickered. It crackled from electricity passing through its frayed wires. 

She’d heard every word of our conversation. So much for age-caused hearing problems. No matter. In short order we’d be out of here, and in a few hours, she’d be just one of many memories of a quirky New York to Los Angeles road trip. 

“Keep wearing it,” the Hopi said. 

I squirmed. I don’t need a complete stranger to validate my watch choice. Especially one who lives in an arid climate, where dive watches are as common as yachts. And if she says another word about my watch, the remainder of the trip will be filled with unbearable ridicule. 

Before I could think of a reply other than "leave us alone," she struck my watch’s crystal with the tip of her feathered, wooden rod. The rap against my watch sounded like a hail stone against a window pane.

“Hey! Don’t do that.” 

“I won’t anymore,” she replied. She opened her mouth to smile. I counted five teeth, all yellow. She slipped closer to me, and I could have sworn her spine straightened and her skin started to unwrinkle in that instant, like an invisible iron was smoothing her skin. Neon light can play tricks on your eyes. “I’m sorry to have bothered you.”

She dug into her tattered, canvas shoulder bag, and retrieved a yellow cloth with something wrapped inside. “Here, for your troubles.”

“What is that?” Abe asked.

The woman turned toward Abe. She hissed, “It’s for him. Not you.” She returned her gaze to me and smiled, displaying a full set of teeth. Her voice softened. “There’s a cookie inside. An apology for you.” 

With that, she pivoted toward the diner’s entrance and walked briskly toward the door, her gait becoming more spritely as she moved farther away from us. The overhead fluorescent lights, neon sign, and outdoor sunlight streaming through the diner’s window conspired to make her brittle, gray hair appear silky and black. The optical illusion grew more intense, as the curves of a twenty-year-old woman replaced the shape she had worn just moments ago. If I hadn’t been firmly rooted in reality I would have thought her clothes morphed too, from tattered, work clothing, to a deerskin dress with multi-colored beads dangling at the bottom. She skipped past the cashier, through the door, and into the daylight. My eyes itched. Must be the dry desert air and bright sunlight. I poured some water onto a napkin, and rubbed my eyes with the wet cloth. 

I noted the empty plate on her table, but hadn’t recalled her paying at the table, and certainly not at the cashier. “Did you see that?” I said to my friends. “She skipped without paying.”

“Maybe she’s got a tab here,” Abe volunteered. 

I unwrapped the cookie and sniffed it. It was about two thirds the size of my palm, beige with flecks of red, orange and yellow fruits peeking out from inside. It smelled sweet, of honey and molasses, mixed with cinnamon. “You’re not going to eat it, Dan, are you?” Kathy asked. She worked for the New York City Department of Health. “It could be poisoned.” Somewhere between Pittsburgh and St. Louis, Kathy had told us about Tylenol laced with cyanide that killed seven people in Chicago in 1982. “Don’t eat it.” She reached for the cookie. I slinked back, using my left hand to parry her approach. 

The longer I held the cookie in my hand, the more I was compelled to eat it. My fingertips tingled where they contacted the cookie, and I saw swirls of aroma floating from the cookie into my nostrils. I had to eat it. “I survived Halloween candy as a kid. I’m sure this cookie is fine,” I told Kathy.

I popped the entire cookie into my mouth. The honey, cinnamon, wheat flour, and butter delighted my tongue. I relaxed, like I was laying under a palm tree, a warm breeze flowing over my body. The cookie tasted strange, as if the ingredients separated into their individual components, and then arranged themselves together again as a cookie. It was like I was the chef, sampling each of the ingredients before combining them into the batter. I tasted another flavor, too. A spice I couldn’t identify. Not anise; I think I know what that tastes like. Maybe something from a flower or berry. Whatever that spice was, it, too, separated and then combined back into the whole again. And it, too, was delicious. 

After I had taken my good time chewing the cookie, swirling the flavors around in my mouth, and finally swallowing it, I let out a long, satisfied, “ahhhh,” looked at Kathy, winked, and said, “See. All good. I’m —”

I lost my balance and started to topple over toward the floor. Abe, who was seated next to me, put a hand on each of my arms, holding me in a vise. The room whirled around me, trying to spin me. I watched the neon sign's letters come alive. The pink, neon HOME mutated into four snakes, slithering along the wall. No, not snakes. Something else. Something with the body of a snake and the head of an eagle. The creatures’ tails were tridents. The creatures stuck to the wall, aiming their heads at me, forked, red tongues darting in and out, growling. The growls were ghostly whispers that sounded like, “Daaaan, Daaaan…” Their skin undulated, waves of reptilian flesh exposing the bone beneath. 

There was a loud snap and everything returned to normal. Including me. 
“You okay?” Christopher asked. “You turned ghost white for a second. Your eyes, too, they were all white.”

Abe released his grip. I wobbled, but didn’t fall from the booth.

I really am dehydrated. 

A dive watch will take you places you never thought of.
Photo by Jose Joaquin Teodorico Miguel.
“Yeah, yeah.” I finished the glass of water in one gulp. I reached for Kathy’s glass and drank that, too. I put the glass, a plastic tumbler actually, back on the table. I pointed to the glasses and said, “I’m sorry if I call for a pit stop in advance of our schedule.”

“Well?” Kathy asked.

“I’m okay, Kath.”

She looked at me with the same expression my mother presented when she suspected I wasn’t entirely forthcoming. “Seriously. Now I’m fine. For a moment I wasn’t, but that’s passed. I might just have to pee before our scheduled rest stop, but that’s all." 

Kathy remained immobile. 

"How long was I...weird? It felt like it was just a few seconds."

"It was for just a few seconds," Christopher said. 

Kathy crossed her arms in front of her chest. She frowned. 

“Yes, yes. I should have listened to you. Maybe there was something in the cookie. But it’s out of my system now.  I’m fine.” Kathy pulled her arms tighter to her body and glared at me. “Next time I will listen to you. I promise.”

Although Los Angeles was less than eight hours away from Flagstaff, a drive we could have made that night, Kathy convinced Abe, Christopher, and eventually me, that we should spend the night at a hotel in the area and sprint to LA in the morning. Her words, “nausea,” “car sickness,” and “vomit,” were sufficient to convince Abe and especially Christopher, whose Lexus we were driving, that erring on the side of caution was the best idea. 

When we walked back to the car, a heavy rain was falling. I hadn’t heard that rain was in the forecast, and the sky had been completely cloudless when we stopped for lunch, but then again, I hadn’t been paying attention to the weather forecast. When you’re spending ninety-five percent of your time enclosed in steel and glass with the awesome power of climate control, the weather doesn’t matter. As long as there weren’t any hurricanes or tornadoes, the forecast was irrelevant. 

Abe tapped his phone to find the nearest Best Western. We had agreed beforehand that we’d aim for Best Westerns, when possible. Motel Six and Holiday Inn if we couldn’t find one. We thought it best to have hotels we could agree on plotted out ahead of time, rather than squabbling over where to stay every night. Naturally, we each had our own rooms, as it had been a decade since we subsisted on college student budgets. Though it’s possible Abe and Kathy bunked up. More power to them, if they did.

The rain grew heavier as we drove to the Flagstaff Airport Best Western. “I bet you’re happy about your dive watch now,” Christopher said. While his words could have been mocking, his tone wasn’t. He was drenched, his clothes having gained at least a pound of water weight just walking from the diner to the car. 

“Sometimes a dive watch isn’t a bad idea.” I nodded. Christopher nodded back. All was good between us.

I plopped onto the bed, my arms outstretched, legs spread wide, posing like a snow angel, and stayed that way for a good fifteen minutes. I thought about turning on the television to see if there was a weather report, but the remote was on the hotel room desk. I didn't feel like moving, so I stared at the painting of the Grand Canyon until I had to pee. 

The rain stopped abruptly at 11:30 p.m., just as I was about to go to sleep. One moment it sounded like marbles bouncing off of the metal exterior of cars, and the next instant, cricket songs filled the air. I was rapidly winding down, my eyelids heavy, ready to drop off to sleep, when I decided to take a last look at my Christopher Ward C60 Trident Elite 1000. When I put it back on, the rain resumed. When I took it off a minute later, the pounding rain stopped. One last look at the watch on my wrist. This is the last time. As soon as I put my diver back on, rain pelting the cars returned. I looked out the window and watched sheets of water crossing the hotel’s parking lot, waving like a tsunami curtain. A layer of water on the parking lot asphalt reflected a distorted street lamp, making it look like a sickle cell moon. 

The room lights blinked off for several seconds. 

I took my dive watch off. The rain stopped. 

I rubbed my chin and heard a voice in my head. The old Indian lady's voice, but it was no longer gravely. Now her words floated on satin. “You are Sotuknang’s vessel.” A minute ago, I didn’t know who Sotuknang, but now I did, as if a memory had been implanted in my brain. He was the creator of the nine universes, of all that there is. I knew who the voice belonged to. Kokyangwuti. Spider Woman, timeless, providing help where it is needed. I knew things I shouldn't have known. 

I heard Kathy’s voice in my head. “You’re hallucinating. It’s the cookie.” My friends are right. It’s good we’re not driving tonight.

As she spoke, Kathy’s voice acquired an accent I wasn’t familiar with. “The cookie. The lightning stick. You remember the diner.” Not Kathy anymore. “Put your watch on, Dan.”

“Who am I talking to?”


“How can I be sure?”

“Because you are sure, Dan.”

"Why should I put my watch back on? I want to sleep." 

“We must renew the Earth.” A memory consumed me. I was a little boy playing by the ocean when a single wave demolished the sand castle I had made. My parents tried to comfort me by telling me they’d help me build another, but I cried until I ran out of tears. 

Yes. Kokyangwuti is wise.

"And my watch means something?" 

"Sotuknang needs you. And Dan, you need this, too, to have a purpose. You want this, and the planet needs this."

I rubbed my fingers over the watch’s crystal. The smooth, cool glass comforted me. My dive watch was no longer mocked. My dive watch has a purpose. It is the instrument of the world’s regeneration. 

“It’s time to wash away the ruin man has caused, Dan,” Kokyangwuti said. I looked to the left. Kokyangwuti was lying beside me in bed, wearing a beaded, deerskin dress. She took my hand in her warm, soft hand and intertwined our fingers. Kokyangwuti smelled of tea and oranges. She was beautiful. 

Yes. Kokyangwuti’s right. I know we have ruined the Earth. Everyone knows.  

“Man has broken the Earth.”

"The world can only be restored by starting again," I said. “We can do it.”

Kokyangwuti replied, “Yes.” She smiled as she handed me my watch, which I had set on the table beside the bed. A flock of snow geese flew across her turquoise irises. 

I couldn't help but wonder, why me? Was Kokyangwuti waiting for me to arrive at the diner, for somebody like me, or was today just a roll of the dice? When will the myths about tonight be written? I didn't think these questions were answerable but what I did know was that despite the cataclysm to come, I was at peace with Kokyangwuti beside me. 

When I put my Christopher Ward back on, the rain and wind returned with a ferocity greater than I’d ever known. The windows vibrated violently, signaling there was little time left before the rain broke through the glass, walls, and roof, and an ocean rose under and around us. The sky flashed with lightning as bright as the sun, followed by thunder that shook the hotel so hard the walls in my room cracked. Kokyangwuti held my hand tight. The electricity winked out again and stayed off.

The renewal had begun. 

I know what my superpower is. 

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