Tuesday, March 22, 2011

THE OPTIMIST BOOK ONE: You Don’t Know Jack By Chuck Miller - Chapter One



You Don’t Know Jack

By Chuck Miller


A long time ago, I was something special.

My life, when I was very young, turned bad. It was bad for a while, then it turned good. And it stayed very, very good for a few years. Then it went down the toilet. But during the good part, I was something rare and fine. I did things few other people ever do. I was part of something strange and glorious and ultimately unsustainable. And after that, as I say, came the toilet. I bobbed around in there for twelve years, and then something happened. A dead hand reached out to me from the past. I was so bombed-out and jaded that I might have ignored even that, if the hand hadn’t been clutching money.
I’ve got a story of sorts to tell.

Life being what it is—and what it isn’t—stories don’t really begin or end anywhere. There are things that seem to be more important than other things, and you can focus on those and slice off everything that happened before and  after. Then the whole thing seems to teach a lesson or make a point or offer some kind of closure for one thing or another.

Well, a lot of unusual things happened to me recently, but nothing was really resolved, and I can’t say for sure that I learned any lessons. But I made a bunch of interesting new friends and found, for the first time in many years, something resembling a purpose. Maybe that’s the lesson, then. If so, it’s ongoing, and I am a long way from the jackpot.

Not long ago, I was sitting in a little bar on a side street in the city of Zenith, the place where I was born and where I died. My life had ended twelve years earlier, on a street not far from where I sat.

I was at a table by myself with a drink in front of me. It was one of a very long series. I don’t recall the first,  and cannot envision the last.

I'm a horrible drunkard. That isn't the most important thing about me, but it's one of the most obvious. You need to know it, because it is a part of the context in which everything took place. But it's not the whole thing. It isn’t even the most important.

Anyhow, here's a brief flashback to explain how I got to that bar on that day of days:

I was an orphan by the time I was seven.  My family died under circumstances 
I cannot talk about.  After some misadventures as a ward of the state, I ended up acquiring a foster father, and the years I spent with him were the best of my life. Which is sort of a left-handed compliment, considering how low a bar the rest my life represents.

I had this foster father for a while, then he died. I was 13 when that happened. It was a pretty messy death. Metaphorically, at any rate. Actually, you could say it was very clean, since his body was pretty much atomized. They found a few little gobs of tissue, with which they established a positive ID.

Life got bad again, worse than it had been before because I had further to fall.
It was back to foster care for me. But not for long. I just couldn't stomach what they had to offer, so I had taken off on my own. Since that time, I had been busy going to and fro in the world and walking up and down in it. Sometimes staggering, and generally more down than up. This went on and on and on. And now, seven days before my 25th birthday, I could be accurately, if uncharitably, described as a burnt-out case.

I never thought I’d return to the great city of Zenith. For 12 years, I had unequivocally intended never, ever to do that. but I had been summoned by a dead man who promised me money.

I didn't get the summons directly from the dead man's mouth, of course. At least not yet. What I got was a letter from an attorney. The letter found me just as I was preparing to hastily leave the apartment and the city I was living in, for reasons that were sickeningly familiar. It involved alcohol, a girl, a job, a run-in with the law-- a great deal of foolishness that could have been avoided. I was too numb to be embarrassed any longer, but it was still time to go. This was a performance I had repeated time and again.

I almost didn’t open the letter because I figured someone was probably suing me or worse. But I did open it, to find this intriguing deus ex machina.
It seemed that my foster father had left for me a trust fund-- a huge trust fund-- which was to be handed to me on my twenty-fifth birthday. My birthday was the following week. The lawyer wired me enough money for a plane ticket, and when I got here, he handed me a wad of bills to "tide me over" until the trust fund business could be consummated.

So I was back in Zenith with some pin money. Quite a bit of it. Which was good. I have an aversion to hotels and motels, and so lucky for me I had enough to rent a little apartment of my own. It was jammed up in the top back corner of a big old house that was probably built before the Civil War, if not the Revolution.

It was claustrophobic and uninviting, but so was everything in my life. It was okay. I liked it, more or less. As much as I liked any place. Trust fund or not, I belonged nowhere, and was equally not at home wherever I went. As not-homes went, this one was tolerable. It was tucked away on a little tree-lined street in the older part of town, down near the water. Not a good neighborhood, exactly, but not exactly a war zone either. The neighborhood had been gentrified, but just barely. The stench of old poverty was still in the air, though a bit of new-money air freshener covered it up.

I liked the section of town it was in. I had never spent much time there in the old days. Lots of nice, big shade trees all up and down the street, and wonderful old houses that dated back to Zenith’s founding and then some.

For the first day or so, I wandered around town on foot, looking at things, hearing sounds, smelling smells that were as achingly familiar as they were depressingly alien. Nothing was really what you would call familiar. Almost, but not quite. Not enough. Twelve years changes everything and nothing. This had once been my world, but that world was gone, leaving only a few sad vestiges. Threadbare memories and painful associations.

There were strangers walking through this ghost world who thought it was new and belonged to them. But they were intruders, anomalies, things without souls, parading up and down in my graveyard, dumbly unaware of their desecration. I hated every single one of them, and their little dogs, too.
One evening, my feet took me to the place in which I told you earlier I was sitting. There were any number of things a person in my position could or should be doing, and I was interested in none of them. I wanted to drink. I always wanted to drink. And I always did. I am remarkably consistent there, at least.

I’d been staring at a fascinating stain on the surface of my table for almost a minute—it reminded me of something I’d once had an encounter with, and sincerely hoped was dead-- when I was interrupted by a young woman looming over me. She was willowy blonde who'd been sitting at a table on the other side of the room. She had a sort of shell-shocked look on her face, which she tried to hide behind a lopsided smile. She wasn't dirty, but she gave the impression of being unwashed, though only for a short time. She was rumpled without being disheveled. That's actually a nice trick, if you can pull it off. She was questionable, but not out of the question.

She was squinting at me and tilting her head back and forth. “Yeah,” she said softly. “I know I know you. I gotta place you.” She closed her eyes, which struck me as an odd way to try to place somebody. “Well, I already placed you, I think, but I gotta make sure is what I mean. Verification. I’m almost sure you’re someone I actually knew myself, rather than one of the other kind. Say something,” she said. “Say, ‘Dammit, kid, you’re gonna get yourself killed one of these days.’”

Well. What could I do but follow orders? I was still trying to work out the gist of what she said while I complied with her request. I said "Dammit, kid, you’re gonna get yourself killed one of these days." I said it, and it kind of tweaked something somewhere in my head, but I was too drunk or too old or too something to put a finger on it. She had plopped herself down into one of the other chairs and still had her eyes closed, so I said it again.

Her eyes popped open, and so did her mouth. She smiled and said one word. A name, actually. A name from long, long ago-- the far side of a span of years that now felt like a dry empty desert. It had been my name-- one of them-- in a time and place that now felt like a dream somebody else once had and tried to explain to you, but you just didn’t see the point.

“You’re him,” she said, still grinning. Hell, she was beaming. Something in there looked like it almost hurt her face to do it, like she hadn’t beamed, or grinned, or smiled at all in a long time.

“You are absolutely him,” she went on. “You said that to me once. Do you remember? You said to me, ‘Dammit, kid, you’re gonna get yourself killed one of these days.’ Do you remember what I said back?”

To my surprise, I did. The whole thing suddenly clicked. I grinned too, and said, “’Of course I am. So are you. What’s your point?’”

She clapped her hands, jumped up, and put her arms around me. I reciprocated.

Her name was Vionna Valis.

Yes, I remembered her well. She couldn’t have been more than eight years old the last time I saw her.

“Sparky!” She said with great wonder and joy.

I winced. Something about that old moniker was rubbing me exactly the wrong way. I said, “Look, you might as well call me by my real name now. It’s Jack. Jack Christian.”

Her eyebrows went up. “Wow! What a name. And you don’t mind telling me your secret identity?”

I shrugged. “It doesn’t much matter now. I haven’t had or needed or wanted a secret identity for 12 years. And even if I did, hell, you’re an old friend.”
She beamed again. “Well. You’re Jack Christian, huh? Gosh. Are you religious?”

I laughed. “Not in the least. That’s just one of those weird ironies of fate or whatever. I should have been called Jack Daniels if my name was gonna reflect anything about me.”

I held up my glass, which was half-empty. I slugged back the contents and called for another, asking Vionna if she’d care to have one of her own. She readily agreed.

“Do you drink a lot, Jack?” she asked in all innocence.

“I do,” I answered with admirable candor. “Almost constantly.”
She nodded again. “I do too. It makes me feel better. I don’t feel good at all sometimes.”

I filed that remark away for later. I wanted to keep it light for the moment. But I took note. It could have been me talking.

“How on earth did you recognize me?” I asked. “You never saw me without my mask on, and it’s been 12 years since you even saw that!” 

She frowned a little and shrugged. “I dunno. I just looked over and saw you sitting here and I knew that’s who you were. Sometimes I know things that I have no way of knowing. Sometimes I recognize someone I’ve never met, or remember being somewhere I’ve never been. I’ve sort of gotten used to it, but not totally, you know? It’s just a thing.”

“It’s odd,” I said as our fresh drinks arrived. We each had a slug, then Vionna continued.

“I’d think I was just imagining things, if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m always right. The people I think I recognize always turn out to be who I think they are. I remember something happening that I couldn’t possibly have seen, and later I found out it actually happened. Stuff like that. Spooky. Impossible.”

“Yeah, it kind of is. Wow! I can’t get over running into you. Vionna Valis! My God. We had a couple of neat little adventures, didn’t we?”

Remember that foster father I mentioned earlier? He had a real name, Johnny Amos, but he also had another name that most of the world knew him by. That name was Captain Mercury. He was a superhero, and so was I.

Johnny—Captain Mercury—and I were not the kind of superheroes that had super powers, like Commander Power or Tomorrow-Man. We could not fly, we could not bend steel, we had no lasers to shoot out of our eyes. We were of the subspecies that is sometimes called “costumed adventurers.” Of course Johnny, in a way, had his own superpowers. He was very rich and very smart, two things that most people are not. He also had a strong desire to fight crime. And, since he could afford to, he preferred to do it freelance. We had every crime fighting gadget you could possibly imagine, and half again as many that you couldn't. We even had a wicked cool underground laboratory I called "The Batcave of Solitude."

As for young Vionna, she was this little kid that lived in one of the neighborhoods Johnny and I patrolled. I don’t know what kind of parents she had, but it seemed like she was out on the streets day and night. You never knew when she might turn up.

I remembered her as a smart kid, and practically fearless. One time, in fact, she helped us collar Victor Kaufman a/k/a the Sewer Rat, one of the old school villains. I forget what he had done that time, but we were chasing him through a warren of alleys and things, and it was looking like he was going to get away. That is, until little Vionna jumped out from behind a dumpster and started beating him over the head with a big old umbrella until we could catch up.

She should have been a member of one of those little gangs of ragamuffins that had colorful nicknames and special things each one could do, and they fought crime on their own and always made the adults look stupid. But as far as I knew, she was a loner. She was a sassy, spirited little thing—always reminded me a lot of Mary Ann Jackson from the old Little Rascals comedies.

She didn’t look sassy or spirited now. She looked like one of those child stars who grow up and turn to drink, drugs, porn, and petty crime.  Which, come to think of it, I probably did too.

I noticed that my glass was empty yet again, and hers was too, yet again. Both had been full less than a minute ago. This was of course both bad and good. Bad for obvious reasons, good because I craved a kindred spirit.  That is to say, someone who would not only not bitch about how much I drank, but would actually keep up with me. A rare bird indeed.

We got two more and started in. After a while, Vionna spoke.

“Jack,” she said. “Are you a half-empty person or a half-full one? What I mean is, you know that saying about people, whether they think a glass is half full of whatever is in it, or whether they think it’s half-empty. It has to do with whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. Which kind are you?”

I held up my own glass and favored it with a longing gaze.  “Well,” said I, “actually,  I am neither of those people. Because there are no such things as half-empty or half-full. ‘Full’ and ‘empty’ are absolutes. Any intermediate state is unrelated to either.  A glass, like the one I’m fondling now, which contains enough liquid to account for half of the available volume, is just that and nothing else.”

“Well. Dang, I never would have thought to put it that way. But it sounds right. I think that’s how I feel, too. Golly, you are some kind of a genius.”

“I’ve always suspected it,” I said humbly. “And here’s the beauty of it, Vionna. This intermediate-state glass can be emptied very quickly. Allow me to demonstrate. There! The glass is empty.” I held it over my head and waved it at the bartender. “In a few moments it will be full. Half-empty and half-full are meaningless abstracts. This process can be repeated infinitely, or at least for as long as my money holds out, and I have a LOT of money.

“All of which, I suppose, makes me a sort of optimist.”


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