The room was too hot, the clock was too loud and the form was too long. Still, Lonny Spake did his best to balance the clipboard on his knees and work his way down the application. Experience. Education. Special Skills. Desired Salary. His life jammed into tiny squares. He signed the bottom and carried the form to the lady behind the desk.
"Just drop it in the box, sweetheart." She didn’t look up from the coffee-stained crossword puzzle that was overwhelming her. Lonny scanned the rows of letters and turned back toward his plastic chair. "Gumption," he said over his shoulder, "upper left corner."
"What’s that? Oh. Thanks a ton, sweetie," said the woman, scribbling. "That’ll get me started. You’re a smart one, you are."
Lonny slid back into the seat and picked up where he’d left off. Waiting. He scratched at a stain on his sleeve. It was his only suit, likely the one he’d be buried in. The woman at the agency said Friday interviews were hard to predict – everyone’s in a good mood but nobody makes big decisions. Either way, Lonny was apprehensive. He’d been out of work for nearly a year and was days away from being tossed out of his flophouse basement bedroom in Coney Island. He sighed and recalled his first – and only – interview. It was a decade ago, with Centaur.
Lonny’s mother was dating Centaur back then, and when the half-man, half-equine superhero offered Lonny a part-time gig spreading hay and shoveling manure, he accepted. As a 16-year-old high school dropout, he didn’t really have a choice. Centaur could be overbearing – custom forged Amish horseshoes, wool flocked saddles, Scottish grooming brushes – but there was no man or horse braver or more loyal. Or more well-hung, for that matter. Centaur sported an impressive masculine array.
And while the thought of this odd mammalian amalgam mounting his mother chewed through Lonny like a chainsaw, he grew to accept it. Centaur was a super mentor, demanding yet generous. Within six months, Lonny rose from stable boy to sidekick, accompanying Centaur, and then riding him, far and wide to "uphold the peace and guard the good people across the Eastern Seaboard [excluding Delaware, where the bestiality laws are far too broadly defined] from evildoers and their ilk."
Lonny launched himself into the role of Centaur’s number two with zeal, taking on the most nefarious, sinister criminals with the tenacity of a mongoose circling a cobra. It wasn’t long before Centaur dubbed him Attaboy, as in, "Pow! Craaaaaaack! Go get ‘em! Attaboy!"
Lonny flinched when he heard the crossword puzzle lady’s howl.
"Is Lonny Spake still here?!"
"Yes, ma’am," he replied, ripping his jacket from the back of the chair.
"Okay, sweetie, you can see Enigma now. It’s just through the door on the left. Good luck, love, knock ‘em dead."
THOOOOOOOM! Attaboy lunges into the unknown…shoes unshined…$99 suit frayed at the uneven cuffs…
Enigma stood and walked around his desk, hand extended. He was taller than Lonny remembered, and gaunter – at least from the jaw down; the majority of his face was encased in the black, metallic sheath of his trademark Enig-mask.
"Have a seat," said the superhero.
"Thank you, sir, it's an honor to meet you." While the two men had crossed paths several times, they’d never been formally introduced. Lonny sat, folded his hands in his lap, remembered to relax his shoulders. He watched Enigma take his own seat.
"So, Centaur has finally headed out to pasture," Enigma said with a smile. "Well, no one deserves it more. He's been fighting the good fight for, what, three decades? How long is that in horse years?"
Lonny squinted, pretended to do the math. "I’m not sure, sir. But he's seen it all. Twice." And Attaboy had seen his share along the way.
In their time together, Centaur and Attaboy had foiled some of the most vile characters – The Headmistress, The Fister, Shia LeBeouf. The pair was renowned for riding in, doling out justice and galloping off to the cheers of a safe and admiring citizenry.
Yet things were changing. A new amendment to the Patriot Act, which had obviously gone unread by the superhero lobby in Washington, now included "villains and supervillains" as threats to national security. The change had lured the CIA, FBI, DHS and anyone else with a badge into the bad-guy-busting business, and relegated regional heroes like Centaur to rounding up schoolyard bullies and teenaged molly dealers. It wasn’t long before Centaur decided to retire, board up the barn and move to Kentucky to give it a go as a stud. He’d certainly earned it.
The future would be about the dark, leather-wrapped, morally ambivalent anti-heroes. The old guard was being eclipsed by brooding heartthrobs and moody megalomaniacs. Centaur and his sort were too last millennium. And eighteen inches of swinging junk was apparently a no-no with the PC police.
Enigma tipped back in his chair and reminisced. "I remember, hell, must have been almost twenty years ago, you were probably in diapers at the time. We were up against it with the Gargoyles."
"I’ve read a lot about it, sir," Lonny said, bowing his head slightly. "Epic."
"We may have bitten off more than we could chew – but who was going to do it otherwise?" Engima’s voice rose as he rocked back and forth. "The U.N. was avoiding the issue and the president was sitting on his fat…anyway." He cleared his throat and continued. "At one point during the heaviest fighting, me and Bravado found ourselves trapped in an overpriced, 350-square-foot studio apartment in Brooklyn, surrounded by Gargoyles. Bravado, he starts to panic – let’s just say he was all talk on that day. It was looking mighty bleak. But then here comes Centaur, crashes right through the window and knocks the living crap out of a dozen of those gruesome sons-of-bitches, and a few unlucky hipsters, too."
"It’s hard to tell the difference, sir," Lonny offered.
"True. Well, it was a helluva bold move. He was a sky-galloping, bronco-kicking nightmare. Simply amazing." Enigma looked off into the distance, adrift in reverie.
Lonny wondered if he should mention that Centaur couldn't fly and that Enigma was probably talking about Pegasus. He opted to keep the little mix-up to himself.
"Anyway," said Enigma, cracking his knuckles, his jaw snapping into serious mode. "You're looking for a new sidekick position. Why me?"
"Sir, I think you're doing the most interesting, essential work out there right now, and I want to be a part of that."
"You were involved in the Bed Bug Brouhaha in ’11," Enigma said, examining the resume before him. His voice was drenched in sadness, an understandable tone considering how many of their comrades had to be doused in calamine lotion that summer. The somber Cotton Ball Memorial in Central Park was a testament to them all.
"Yes, sir. Centaur and I helped clear out Staten Island. The parasites were dug in deep there."
"Staten Island?" Enigma raised an ebony-gloved hand to his chiseled chin. "Back behind the front? Well, I’m sure there was some fighting going on there, too."
"Yes, sir, there was." Damn straight, Lonny almost added. The critters had infested the entire city. And while every single spandex superstar was zipping around Manhattan, posing in front of any news camera available, Centaur and Attaboy had cleared the bloodsuckers out of the forgotten borough. They had the scars to prove it, too. True bravery, Centaur always said, happens in the shadows.
Enigma skimmed the resume again. "Have you ever worked with a superhero team? I’m involved with the Neuroticons, with Dramatica and The Kvetcher. It’s quite a bit of work, emotional and administrative. Lots of prescriptions." He sounded like a superhero who rued the day he joined a superhero team. "Do you have any experience with spreadsheets?"
Lonny adjusted his position in the sleek fiberglass chair. "No sir, it was just Centaur and me." Spreadsheets?
"Right," Enigma said with a frown. "Well, how about weapons? Can you assemble and maintain the Annihilator 1000?"
Lonny glanced down at his folded hands. "Um, well…no sir, we didn’t really use many gadgets."
"Gadgets? Son, the Annihilator is no toy. It’s state-of-the-art crime fighting technology that will boil your bone marrow. I’m surprised you’re not familiar with it."
"Of course, sir," Lonny replied. The glossy Continuing Ed for Sidekicks brochures he routinely tossed in the trash fluttered through his reeling mind. "But, no, I’m not very familiar with the Annihilator 1000."
SCREEEEECH…SSSPLAASSSSSH! Attaboy’s interview careens off a cliff and sinks into the steaming swamp!
Enigma asked a few parting questions about goals and aspirations, but he didn’t appear to be listening. Lonny had stopped playing along, too. They bid each other farewell and he slinked out of the office and back through the waiting room.
"Cheer up, sweetie," said the crossword lady, peering over her glasses. "You’ll find something, a smart fella like you." She tapped her temple with a well-gnawed pencil. "I got great intuition."
"Thanks," Lonny said, noticing that her puzzle was still all but blank.
Lonny’s resourceful/sadistic employment agency had arranged for three interviews in succession. His next stop was across the river, in New Jersey. On the ferry to Weehawken he watched some kids chase the smallest member of their group around the boat, threatening to chuck him overboard. But the little guy stayed a step ahead of them. Lonny was that kid once; alert and quick, because he had to be. When Lonny was nine years old, his father skipped off with a blind dominatrix and a suitcase full of cash. How could a falafel-cart man hide so much money? And how could he not spend a dime of it on his family? His mother, God bless her, was easy on the eyes but an awful judge of character – a lousy combination when surrounded by the sweet-talking scamps of Sheepshead Bay. She picked her way through a trash bag of boyfriends, from OTB hounds and get-rich-quick scammers to meth fiends and even a FOX News producer.
Lonny learned from this dumpster-worthy collection of model degenerates that words were often worthless, so he kept his mouth shut and his eyes open. An indifferent student but a state wrestling and judo champion before he quit high school, Lonny approached the world the way he approached the mat: angles and openings, dodge and react. As Attaboy, he was driven by the desire, the compulsion, to remind the crooks that crime does not pay, that collateral damage can’t be shrugged away and that taking responsibility is not optional. His deadbeat father would be proud; then terrified.
Lonny’s interview with Kapitän Gleichheit was in a drafty warehouse along the Hudson River waterfront, the rank musk of oil and brine and rotting rope roiling through the open windows. The industrial metal desk separating the two men was stacked high with thick, well-worn volumes — Kant and Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. The comet-hot industrial lights projected fantastic chimeras across the pocked walls.
Kapitän Gleichheit – Captain Equality in English – opened the discussion with a thorough, monotone description of a new European initiative to reinvent the superhero, to reshape the crime-fighting class as Old World statesmen rather than New World head-bashers.
"My purpose is to protect civilization from ze evils zat capitalists do, yes?" said The Kapitän with a knowing smile. "Ze means of production must be safeguarded by ze people, for ze people, yes? Hmmm? You see? Now, the policies of the profiteering junta zat has usurped economic freedom from ze masses..." And zo on.
Lonny sat motionless, wondering why he hadn’t networked more. Why he didn’t stay in touch with his fellow number twos. Why he had refused to become a member of Sidekicks & Heroes for International Teamwork, the organization without an acronym. He’d nearly joined once, back when he was flirting with Voluptua at a membership drive. She was certainly a looker — and she could crack a walnut in her cleavage — but Attaboy was dating Siren at the time, a relationship that eventually sputtered because of her incredible mouth. And not in a good way. She never stopped talking: in the car, at the movies, during sex. Even while she was on the bowl. But still, for a while, whenever Siren called, he came.
"Zo," — the Kapitän’s monolog had come to an end — "are you a Keynesian or from ze Austrian School?"
Lonny felt his face catch fire, followed immediately by a damp afterglow. Religion was not his specialty. "With respect, sir, I don’t think who and how I worship is relevant."
The Kapitän gaped, then snickered. "Ah, yes indeed, young man, economists are sometimes revered as religious figures. Perhaps vee fall short of our ideals ven vee treat such men as saviors, yes? Haha, very good, yes, very good. Zo, have you any questions?"
Yeah, thought Lonny: Why hadn’t I taken the postal service exam when I had the chance? I’d probably have my own route by now. But instead: "Sir, who are your archenemies and what are they after?"
The German superhero grimaced as if he’d bitten into a sweet hunk of sauerbraten. "I specialize in philozophical crimes, not stopping…how do you say…stick-ups," he said, waving a hand dismissively. "I protect ze populace from metaphysical world domination. If you're interested in ze purely physical aspects of ze business, I’m afraid you’re in ze wrong place."
Metaphysical? Lonny recalled the month he’d spent in the omniverse, searching for Centaur after he was captured by Mobius. Metaphysical? Try the panphysical, friend, where you’re everywhere all at once, then we’ll talk.
"Sir, I...my experience has been that rattling a criminal’s teeth against a brick wall is the way to go," said Lonny. "I mean, if a nice chat doesn’t do the trick."
The Kapitän grunted and perused Lonny’s application. "And zis name...Attaboy. You are open to change, yes? Perhaps somezink more suitable to ze verk of breaking ze iron grasp of ze moneyed interests, yes? Erasmus, perhaps, ze great humanist and reformer?"
Lonny thought about that for a moment. Replace Attaboy. Erase Attaboy. Was it time? He imagined what Centaur would think about that. "I’m sorry," Lonny said, shaking his head. "I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir. I’ve been Attaboy for a long time. It’s who I am."
The Kapitän grunted again and removed his spectacles.
NYYYOWWWWWW…KKKKRAAAASSSSH! Attaboy slams head first into an oncoming saurkraut truck!
Lonny sat bent in half on the Manhattan-bound PATH train, elbows propped on his knees, eyes fixed absently on the black rubber floor. His third interview was half-hour away, and he was considering skipping it. He glanced up at an advertisement for an entrepreneurship program at the local college: START A BUSINESS | BE THE BOSS | OWN YOUR SUCCESS.
Lonny pondered about what it would be like to go it alone, to hang out a shingle and be The Man. The thought rippled down his spine like a jolt from Queen Aphrodisia’s Orgasmatron. But no, that wasn’t him. Setting up shop was not a simple proposition. It meant finding clients, making the numbers work and dealing with relentless cosplayers at Comic-Con. It was rare for a sidekick to make the transition to the top. Yes, Nepotizmo had done it, but he had an uncle in the Freedom Guild. And Promiscua, well, she had special talents. Exceptions for sure. And, of course, he’d then need to find his own sidekick.
The train doors slid open at 14th Street and he traipsed up the stairs toward Union Square. Pulling the tab off a Red Bull as he crossed Third Avenue, Lonny mused on what he would look for in a number two – probably the same qualities that had propelled him to success as Attaboy: versatility and dedication and optimism and...
Attaboy…pulls…himself…through…the darkness…and suddenly…FOOOOOOSHHHHHHHH!!! He finds himself in a bright light…and he can see…EVERYTHING!
Lonny followed the secretary through the hall, admiring the art stretched along the walls and the mirror-smooth parquet floor. When they reached what felt like the ten-mile mark he was handed off to another sherpa who led him into Volcano’s office.
The Man of Magma was standing at the floor-to-ceiling window, watching the exhausted sun drop into the glowing river. He turned and welcomed Lonny with a handshake.
"Thanks for coming in, Attaboy." Volcano dropped onto the crimson sofa in the center of the room. "I apologize, but I’m short on time. Is it alright if I ask you a few direct questions?"
"Fire away, sir," Lonny said, pun intended, if not acknowledged.
"The mayor’s requiring all local law enforcement to go green, dammit, so I need someone who can repair a hybrid ethanol Annihilator 1000. Have you worked on anything like this?"
Lonny flicked a speck off his knee and tilted his head. "Sir, with Centaur, I learned more about equine digestive disorders than I’ll ever need to know. I can fix a split hoof without a patch. And I can ride bareback while throwing two lassos. I’m sure I can figure out how to polish a weapon."
Volcano chuckled. "Yes, I don’t see that being too much trouble for you." He peeked past Lonny at the office door, then continued in a whisper. "You know, as I'm getting older, I can’t...my special eruption power...it’s not what it used to be."
Volcano's ability to spew was legendary. He could drown an evildoer with his molten discharge from two hundred feet. Evidently, things were changing.
"How so?" Lonny asked.
"Well, I can't...control it the way I used to. Sometimes it's all right, but sometimes..." A pink sheen crawled across Volcano’s visage and he rubbed the back of his neck. "Sometimes, it just, it won't happen. And there are other things...small pains and nagging aches..." Volcano's voice trickled to silence.
"That's completely understandable, sir. You're getting older. But they have pills for that. With your experience you'll be fine. We’ll learn how to harness your prowess in new ways." Lonny was wearing his top-shelf grin now, leaning forward on the edge of his seat. "In fact, Centaur started losing a step years ago. We worked around it. I got him to gallop smarter, not faster. We switched to polyflex horseshoes. And we became more selective about which evil plots to thwart."
Volcano was nodding, staring over Lonny’s head at a newly revitalized future. "Yes, yes, that's true. It’s only change, slowing down doesn't mean going dormant."
"Exactly," said Lonny. "You – we – know too much to let some physical challenges stop us from doing what we do best. In fact, we can get even better." He paused, brought his clasped hands to his chin. "Sir, have you—"
"Cano. You can call me Cano."
"Cano, have you considered starting a super team? With your know-how, we could put together an unstoppable squad."
Volcano was nodding again, more vigorously. "You know, the thought has crossed my mind, but it's a big responsibility. Do you think you could help me put that together?"
"Yes I do. It’ll take some time, and some spreadsheets, of course. But it’s a great idea." And Lonny believed it. Eruptile dysfunction or not, Volcano was still an icon. If anyone could help reboot and reignite the once great superhero, Attaboy could. In fact, he was all at once certain that he could do anything.
Volcano glanced up at his Mount Vesuvius wall clock. "Well, Attaboy, I need to get going. Busy day – apparently Echo has called another emergency meeting. He's full of himself, that one."
"Loves to hear himself talk...talk...talk..." Lonny offered in a fading falsetto.
"Hahahah! Yes, yes he does." Volcano rubbed a tear from his eye. "I like you, Attaboy. Are you free for lunch on Monday? I can tell you more about the job."
"I sure am," Lonny said. They walked out together, swapping a few more stories and making arrangements for their lunch meeting.
As Lonny was about to slip into the revolving doors, Volcano shouted from across the lobby. "One more thing," he bellowed in a voice more alive than ever. "I've always liked the idea of a sidekick named Lava Lad. How do you feel about that? We could get you a neat outfit. Asbestos free, of course."
"I don’t know, Cano," Lonny said, arching an eyebrow. "I’m pretty sure you’ll find Attaboy is the right way to go."
WHOOOOOOOOSH! Attaboy arches through the sky, arms extended, reaching toward a new beginning…