A West Branch Wired Exclusive
I was sitting in the Katherine Anne Porter House in Kyle, Texas when I first heard Josh Lopez read his Hulk short story. The story is filled with such heart and humor and tenderness. I expected the story would be in the pages of a journal or magazine soon enough. That was 2015. In the six years since I heard it, I would often ask Josh “What’s up with the Hulk story? Has it been picked up yet?” To my dismay, the answer was always no. When West Branch invited me to be a guest editor, I told Josh I wanted the story if it was still free. This time, to my absolute delight, it was. I couldn’t be more thrilled to welcome this story into the world.
The story goes that near the end of his life, Robert Lowell lamented to Helen Vendler that critics had never said the one thing he wanted them to say. When Vendler asked, “What’s that?” he replied, “That I’m heartbreaking.” Cassie Mainiero’s work is just that, heartbreaking. During the two years that she and I overlapped at Vermont College of Fine Arts when she was a student, I don’t think we ever had a single conversation. When years after graduation she did a post-graduate semester with me to work on a manuscript, I finally had the pleasure of spending time with these expansive poems of real verve. Her work turns as if guided by the careful hand and eye of the glassblower.
When I volunteered to be a part of the first group of mentors for Periplus, a collective seeking to mentor promising BIPOC writers, I was thrilled by the chance to help a writer navigating their way through the writing and publishing worlds. Little did I know I would be assigned a writer of Arturo Pineda’s power and grace. An essayist with deep roots in poetry, their work reminds us that before we had paragraphs or stanzas, or even the paper to write them on, we had artists like them who brought us the news that mattered in their songs.
Tomás Q. Morín is the author most recently of the poetry collection Machete and the forthcoming memoir Let Me Count the Ways. He teaches at Rice University and Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Cassandra Mainiero‘s poetry has been published in Sigma Tau Delta Journal, Mind Murals, The New Jersey Journal of Poets, and more. She holds a bachelor’s in English from Lycoming College and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Currently, she works at Tuttle Publishing in Vermont, and is working to complete her first chapbook.
My father rises before the sun. My mother rises before them both. He stumbles into the bathroom, and she marches into the kitchen. A large bowl of oatmeal and black coffee greet him at the kitchen table. He asks for brown sugar. She refuses. Sugar levels were too high last week. Peach skin flakes fall onto the countertop. She slices the peach into eight smooth wedges placing them in a separate smaller bowl. The weather man projects no clouds and a high of 89. Scarfing down spoonfuls of beige mush, he runs out. Her voice stops him at the front door. He forgot his lunch again.
He sits outside the house in Carhartt overalls. He is surrounded by peach orchards and the buzz of horny cicadas. Pegasus, Hercules, and Pisces shine above. But he ignores them. His right index finger dances along the white dots, crafting new constellations. The left hand is like a claw—a long-ago injury. Nameless constellations rise and fall behind one another. Some have dozens of stars stretching across the horizon, wanting to never end. An infinite number of configurations for his delight. Daylight begins to wash it all away. He doesn’t need to read celestial bodies to know his own future. His body is a record of 40 years of underpaid and unpaid physical labor worked across the Eastern United States coast.
Weathered is the polite way to describe his face. “His face is an exquisite rock formation carved from hundreds of years of water, air, and debris grazing past him,” is how a Nat Geo article would describe him. An apex of resilience or something. No. Esta madreado. There is nothing graceful or resilient about being exploited. He’s tired. His cheeks have a permanent burnt blush to them from years of sun damage. My father cries during hot summer days because his eyes can no longer bear the sun.
The first beams of sunlight trickle into the sky. The yellow beams penetrate the pitch black to reveal a blend of somber blues and purples hiding behind. The light disentangles them until each color stands alone. The light gains intensity, reaching for every celestial body in sight. The white stars sprint away to find darkness on the other side of the Earth. Piercing once more, the light reveals an intense pink hue clinging to edges of purple. The blush blends seamlessly into the sea of pink peach blossoms below. Warm orange sworls spin out from the rays pushing everything else to the edge. Orange means there is enough sunlight to begin working. 5:40 AM.
Arturo Pineda is a freelance reporter based out of Charlotte, North Carolina. Their work has appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Carolina Public Press, and New Haven Arts Paper.
The Incorrigible Hulk
Lydia zips up the back of my suit and then helps me slip on my big foam rubber gloves. She tucks my Hulk head into the crook of my arm so it’ll be easy for me to carry. This is where she usually kisses me on the cheek, but today she holds the door open and waits for me to leave. I have to turn myself sideways to get out because I can’t fit through the door in my Hulk suit. At the moment, I’m at a loss for words because Lydia just told me I need to choose between being with her and being the Incredible Hulk. I was halfway through my bowl of corn flakes when she hit me with the ultimatum.
“I need this to be your last day,” she said as I scooped up a spoonful of cereal. “I need you to get a real job.” She said she couldn’t stay with someone content with being unemployed. She doesn’t come outside once I’m out the door because she’s still in her bathrobe. It’s her day off. And, while she’s just delivered this soul-crushing demand that I quit doing something I love, she makes it a point to wish me good luck anyway. That’s so Lydia. Always positive even in the face of disagreement. I kiss her on the cheek and tell her I’ll probably be out late tonight.
I begin the walk to Grauman’s Chinese. It’s five blocks up Highland Avenue from our tiny studio apartment in a dirty neighborhood just south of Melrose. I don’t understand where this new Lydia came from. I keep hearing her words. A real job. They weigh heavy and absolutely kill me. My Hulk shoulders droop in the summer heat, and the heavy foam gloves pull my hands down toward the street. Why does she want me to stop doing something that makes me happy? I believed her when she said she’d leave, but how can anyone who truly loves another person ask them to give up the one thing that makes them happy? Sure, I could probably go back to another job like the one I had before, but she and I both know I’m just not built to work in a cubicle.
It isn’t too far of a walk to the Chinese Theater from our apartment, but it’s not easy in the July heat. People I pass on the street smirk when they see me, and I nod in acknowledgment of how ridiculous I look. Even in Hollywood, a grown man openly walking the street in a superhero costume gets looks. I pass Gilson’s Liquor, and Clark waves to me from his chair behind the register inside. Clark’s a good guy. Always waves hello. He wears big glasses and has a toothy smile I think is both stupid and friendly. If business is good, I’ll be out until one or two tonight. I need to make a good haul to show Lydia I should keep doing this. Not only is today a Saturday, but it’s also July; peak tourist season. They walk with their eyes fixated on the walk of fame sidewalk to see which celebrity names they can spot while they snap pictures next to their favorite stars. And when they’re tired of looking at the imprints of their favorite stars’ hands and feet out in front of Grauman’s, they come and take a picture with others like me for a dollar. We’re all scrambling for tourist cash. Batman, Spider-Man, Michael Jackson, Elvis and anybody else anyone’s ever heard of are all here, and so is the Incredible Hulk. A.K.A. – me.
My Hulk suit is a really good one. The muscles are huge, and my pants are ripped-ragged at the knees just like the real Hulk. The problem with my suit is that I’m not green. I’m purple. I’m purple, and my shorts are green, when of course it should be the other way around. I found the suit on the Chow Ling Corporation’s website, which I found in an online forum for serious costume collectors. Chow Ling was the largest provider of movie set costumes for the biggest studios in China, and their site advertised a Hulk suit that they promised looked comparable to anything being used in Hollywood. It was made with their ‘flex-fusion technology’ that delivered the strongest, most flexible composite webbing, which was important because it allowed both durability and ease of movement. At five-hundred dollars, the suit was a steal. Lydia was against the idea, but I knew it was an investment that would pay for itself in less than a week —two tops.
I reach the corner of Hollywood and Highland and find Jayne Mansfield already there. Our group meets in the alley behind the El Capitan Theatre next to the Coffee Bean. As usual, Jayne is already in character and is smoking a cigarette while leaning back against the Coffee Bean wall looking classy and cool.
“Hey, Jayne. How’s it going?” I ask.
She blows a playful cloud of smoke out the corner of her mouth. “Ask my agent,” she says in her cutesy character voice and then follows with a sexy smile and wink. I wince a little because it’s the line she always delivers, and I was sincerely trying to connect with her. Still, I do have to admit Jayne has her character down. She’s the youngest member of our group. According to her, she’s twenty-one. She also claims her actual name really is Jayne. She’s only been with us a couple of months, but I’ve already decided she’s bat-shit crazy. Aside from the fact that I’ve caught her whispering into the compact mirror she uses to touch up her face, I’m pretty certain she thinks she really is Jayne Mansfield. As far as look-a-likes go, I admit she’s pretty good. She does her blonde hair so it’s big and perfect with ends that flip out playfully. Imagine any picture you’ve ever seen of Marilyn Monroe, and that’s exactly what you get with Jayne. I’ve told her more than once she should just start being Marilyn Monroe instead of Jayne Mansfield. Most people mistake her for Marilyn anyway, so it feels like unnecessary confusion to me.
“I like Jayne,” she says. “I feel like more of a Jayne than a Marilyn. And besides, we already have two Marilyn’s, and I’ve heard some of the others aren’t happy about it. There’s no way they’d allow a third.”
She’s right about that. We do already have two Marilyn’s, and there is an unwritten rule about avoiding duplicate personas on the strip. In general, duplicates are okay, but only as long as there is something distinctively different between them. For instance, it’s okay to have a young Elvis and an older fat Elvis, but it’s bad form to have multiple versions of the same Elvis. You can have more than one Spock, but one has to be the classic Leonard Nemoy and the other the more modern J.J. Abrams’ version. You cannot, under any circumstances, have two Leonard Nemoy Spocks because that would just be stupid.
“No sign of Chewie or Flash?” I ask.
“Not yet,” Jayne says.
Honestly, I’m a little worried about Jayne. The strip is a dangerous place. It might look like it’s all sunshine and glitz in the daytime, but there’s a lot of predators out here. Pick-pockets prey on naïve tourists, assaults are fairly common, and it only gets worse the later the night gets. Lately, I’ve noticed a newcomer. He’s a green frog that showed up about a week ago. It’s a stupid costume, frankly, because it’s not a specific character. It’s just a dumb green frog with big googly eyes and a lime green circle over the stomach. I don’t know how anyone could expect to make money in a suit like that. Most of us on the strip recognize each other, so it’s not hard to spot a newbie. I noticed the green frog about a week ago when he was arguing with a man whose girlfriend he’d just taken a picture with. I don’t know what the problem was, but the man was pretty upset. Rumor has it the green frog also got into it with Mickey Mouse the night before last. If that’s true, he’s pretty dumb because nobody who messes with Mickey lasts on the strip very long. Overall, there’s something about the green frog that doesn’t feel right. As for Jayne, I’m pretty sure she’s all on her own. She’s been leaving with random people lately. She says she’s going on break and then doesn’t come back for half an hour or more. It’s a clear violation of the rules our group has agreed to, and she’s breaking the one that clearly restricts personal breaks to fifteen minutes. Neither Flash nor Chewie have said anything about it so far.
Jayne and I wait half an hour before Chewie and Flash show up. They’re late because they’ve been smoking weed in Chewie’s apartment and playing Call of Duty. I can tell because Flash avoids eye contact when he’s high, and he hasn’t looked at any of us yet. I don’t like Flash, if I’m being honest, but Chewie’s badass. He’s a programmer by day. While the rest of us have our ups and downs when it comes to sales, Chewie is always on fire. It’s because of his suit. It’s practically legit by movie standards and attracts a lot of attention. He claims it’s the real thing, and that it was actually used in a few takes from the original Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Personally, I think the story is bullshit, but I have to admit it is an excellent suit.
We spend some time game-planning before we hit the sidewalk. I point out a spot where there aren’t many others working, and we all agree it’s a good place to start. We put on the last pieces of our costumes and then hit the street in full garb. I wave one over-sized purple Hulk fist at the group of people across the way while we wait for the crosswalk signal to give us the okay to cross. Chewie makes a buck right there before the light even has a chance to change. Big surprise. Chewie always makes the first sale. This used to make me jealous, but that was before I realized how much I let myself be consumed by meaningless competitions, like the one I have at home with Lydia where I avoid putting the scissors back in the kitchen drawer where they belong after she’s left them out. I think it’s her way of unconsciously exerting control over our relationship. In fact, I’m certain of it because I know Lydia in a way that’s only possible when you really love someone to the point where they actually become a physical extension of yourself. She says she forgets to put them away, and the thing is I believe her. I understand these small shortcomings in her personality. So, what do I do? I eventually put the scissors away without getting on her case since I know it isn’t entirely her fault. But, why can’t she show me the same kind of understanding by letting me keep being the Hulk? I’m a one-hundred percent better me when I’m him. I’m big, and I’m powerful. And when I’m not suited up, I’m scrawny and weak; a zero percent me. This is what I can’t get Lydia to understand. I’m nothing if I’m not the Hulk.
The four of us go into character as soon as we hit the sidewalk in front of Grauman’s. I stomp around as sightseers snap pictures of the imprints left in the concrete from celebrities like Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie. I growl as I pass the tourists and their flashing cameras. Jayne makes the next sell. She’s good at drawing-in the men. She catches them looking at her as she powders her nose and then blows them a kiss. They tip her the best because she leans in close and rubs the sides of her breasts against their arms when they pose beside her and acts like she doesn’t know what she’s doing. The move is good for at least a few extra dollars. Chewie poses for a few more pictures, and two girls ask if they can take a video of him. Chewie loves to do videos. He raises his arms, throws his head back, and bellows out the trademark Chewbacca call while they get it all on camera. It gets a big reaction.
Personally, I don’t like videos because they don’t usually result in a better tip. I used to do them, but then I found one of me on Youtube. It showed me stomping around and growling like usual. I flexed my big hulk muscles and shook my over-sized rubber fists at the sky before slamming them down hard onto the concrete. I thought it was a pretty good performance, but the Youtube comments were surprisingly harsh:
Worst hulk EVER…
He’s not even the right color. WTF.
The Hulk is NOT PURPLE.
Buy a gun and use it. Terrible. What are you even doing?
I won’t lie. Those words hit me hard. I felt so humiliated that I stopped going to the strip for a few days. Of course, I eventually went back because Lydia’s paychecks weren’t be enough to get us through the month and because Chewie left me two voicemails saying how much he and the others really wanted me to come back because the energy wasn’t the same without me there. It felt good to be needed.
The women taking the video of Chewie hand him a few bucks and then move on past Flash without noticing him. He’s in the middle of the routine he does where he pretends to run in place at super-fast speed. He pauses to strike a handful of poses moving from one to the next as quickly as he can shift, but his speed falls far short of anything impressive. It’s a mediocre routine overall, but I shouldn’t criticize because I can’t say I’ve been earning a whole lot more than him lately. I come in just behind Jayne most nights, but I have to admit Flash does out-earn me sometimes. I don’t feel bad bringing in fewer sales than Chewie and Jayne because Chewie has the superior costume, and Jayne, well, Jayne has tits. But, there is a part of me that feels like a failure when I lose out to Flash. Not only is his costume inferior to mine, but so obviously is also his showmanship. He’s just not dedicated to the job in the same way I am.
Right now, I can’t help but notice he’s abandoned his running-in-place routine to buy a hot dog from a street vendor. He pays and then takes a bite out of the dog right there in front of everyone. It’s a blatant display of disrespect for our group’s ‘no breaking character’ rule. Flash and I just had a talk about breaking character last week, and he seemed to understand why it was bad for business. I want to confront him, but I take a few deep breaths and walk away growling and heaving louder than before instead.
Chewie calls the first group break at 6 p.m., and we duck into the alley behind the El Capitan to divvy up the afternoon’s earnings. Chewie does the count as usual. I get thirty as my share which is a little less than I expected, but it’s still not bad for the first half of the day. A couple of guys I don’t recognize show up, and Jayne leaves with them while Chewie and Flash take off to the weed dispensary around the corner. I want to call out to ask Jayne where she’s going, but it feels intrusive, so I don’t. Instead, I head for the Walgreens at the end of the street as usual to use the toilet and buy a sandwich. It feels good to take my mask off and breathe fresh air as I walk. I call Lydia on the way, but she doesn’t pick up. I just wish she could accept the fact that I’m not unemployed. I have a job, and it’s one I love. I give people inexpensive memories to look back on and remember the trip they took to one of the best cities on Earth. Lydia’s never really understood that, which means she’s never really understood me. I guess most people would say that’s a serious problem for a relationship.
I’m becoming more and more convinced that whatever Jayne is up to is a serious problem. My guess is she’s selling weed out of her car, but she could also be hooking. Poor girl. She’s too young to really understand how dangerous of a place this is. I’m also still annoyed with Flash. I really don’t like getting angry, but sometimes it’s just not something I can control. I used to think I picked this Hulk suit because it was the best deal the Chow Ling site offered, but there are times when I think maybe the suit chose me. If only I could bring in more sales, then Lydia would understand why I do this. Maybe going out on my day off is the answer? Or maybe there’s something I need to work to improve like my stomping routine or my growls. Ultimately, I think maybe I just need to give in and invest in a damn green suit.
It’s been two years since I left my job as a supervisor at SecurePoint. We were an internet security company in Burbank that sold anti-virus software and firewall protection to businesses too small and too inexperienced to realize they should give the job of protecting their data out to someone better. Our software promised a one-hundred-percent failsafe protection that not only prevented breaches of sensitive information but also actively sought out potential vulnerabilities in customers’ networks. We guaranteed no customer’s system would ever be infiltrated by anything harmful if they purchased our full package, which was total bullshit because no one can realistically deliver on a guarantee like that. But, it was my team’s job to do our best to maintain the illusion of safety. My reps and I were on the front lines taking calls from pissed-off pizzeria owners and fancy flower shops having issues with the software. If our reps couldn’t fix the problem, they deferred to a standard script we gave them that said there was a temporary glitch that we were already aware of and were actively working to fix. If that didn’t smooth things over, the call got escalated to me, and then I’d do anything possible to de-escalate the situation. Sometimes I told myself they deserved shitty service for being naïve enough to have given their money to someone who promised a one-hundred-percent failsafe product, but there were other days when I did sincerely try to help them. The hardest part was holding back when customers got out of line. I’d feel my temper slipping but could manage to pull it back if I focused hard enough. It helped if I thought of Lydia and how much we both needed my paycheck. I learned to close my eyes and breathe.
Then came the morning I snapped. Don Lattimer, a client I’d spoken to on a regular basis for almost half a decade and whose account was worth ten thousand dollars a year, was yelling at me. Apparently, he’d arrived at his office that morning to find his network had been hacked, and his entire sales record for the year was gone along with his customer data. I stayed calm while he shouted into the phone even though I could already feel a rage growing deep inside. I listened as he called me incompetent, ineffective, unhelpful, and most shocking of all, a worthless piece of shit. I’d been called a lot of things by a lot of clients, but never a worthless piece of shit. Before I knew it, I was smashing my receiver onto my desk and stomping my headset into a hundred pieces, some parts scattering into neighboring cubicles. I ripped the phone free from its wires and chucked the whole thing a full two cubicles down the aisle. When I think about it now, the only thing I can see is my chair tipped over and its little wheels slowly spinning to a stop while everyone around me stared.
A month later, I’m downtown waiting for a crosswalk signal while on my way to what would become one of so many dead-end job interviews. Across the street, I watched a man dressed up as Captain America pose for a picture with a small group of tourists. He smiled, the camera flashed, and then they handed him money. It seemed too easy. I started researching costumes that night. I met Chewie and Flash during the first week I hit the strip. We clicked right away, and we’ve been a team ever since.
By the time I get back from the Walgreens, night is setting in, which means it’s time for the weirdos to come out. A few families still linger, but it’ll be mostly the party crowd from here on out. The strip’s mood changes at night, and it’s not really so family-friendly. A club somewhere nearby pumps a heavy bass that pulses low and steady. This is a hit or miss time in our shift because the number of people who are here to sightsee drops off. Sales can be few and far between, so I usually try to take my routine up a notch. I stomp heavier. I grumble and growl louder than usual before throwing my head back to roar at the sky. It sometimes attracts attention, but nothing’s ever a guarantee.
Jayne is touching up her makeup when I make it back to our alley by the El Capitan. Flash poses for a picture nearby while it doesn’t look like Chewie is back from break yet.
“Where’s Chewie?” I ask Flash.
“Went home real quick. Should be back soon.”
I give him a thumbs up even though I know that means Chewie won’t actually show up for at least half an hour. I start the shift off hot. One guy even gives me a fiver instead of the usual single. I give him a second picture for free in which I raise my arms up high over him as if I’m about to smash his head in. The pic comes out really good, and we all have a good laugh. That one’s going up on social media somewhere for sure. I’m having a good time, but I’m still thinking about Lydia. I’m in the middle of considering whether or not I could even keep being the Hulk if I didn’t have Lydia to go home to when I spot the green frog. He’s posing with a family. It’s innocent until I swear I see him deliberately pat the teenage daughter on the ass. She shoots him a look but doesn’t say anything. I want to confront him. I want to tell him that isn’t what we do here, but I don’t because I feel like I’ll just make a big scene. I’ll get too upset and drive customers away.
My performance suffers the rest of the night because I keep worrying about Lydia. I go ice cold. I try to be the best Hulk I can be. I stomp and I growl, but it’s no use. I even offer up a few freebies. I announce up front there’s no charge and then pose for two or three shots. The camera flashes attract attention that usually leads to more sales. It’s the law of attraction, and I fully believe in it. But even universal laws and principles can’t save me tonight. I only earn five singles the rest of the shift; it’s a pathetic showing by any standard. Even Flash has tripled that. The hardest part isn’t the humiliation of being the weak link in the group tonight; the worst is knowing there’s no way I can justify me continue doing this to Lydia. It’s a painful realization, but I think this may be my last night as the Hulk. Luckily, Chewie showed up not too long after we started and killed as usual. Jayne does well too. She has almost fifty sales by herself. Flash pulls in somewhere around half that much, and Chewie, of course, is our big earner.
We call it a night a little after one in the morning. The crowd is decent, but it’s mostly clubbers and crazies, so we dip into the alley to do our final tally. Chewie does the count, executes some quick math on his phone, and then starts handing out. I watch as he gives Jayne what looks to be about sixty bucks. I’m guessing Flash will probably get thirty-five or forty. I’m expecting ten for myself; a small mercy bonus for my pathetic contribution to the group tonight, but Chewie surprises by putting a twenty in my palm. It’s beyond generous on his part. Ridiculously generous. And, it’s moments like this that make me thankful I’m part of a team. Still, there’s Lydia, and I know I have to tell Chewie the bad news.
“Hey, man.” I say. “Thanks, but I don’t deserve this.”
“No worries,” Chewie says. “I know you’re good for it later.”
I’ve never hated Lydia, but I think I want to hate her in this moment because I don’t want to tell Chewie this is my last night, so I hang there for a moment not knowing what to say. He stares back at me and then cocks his head to the side as if trying to understand. I just can’t say it. I think I can still make this work.
“Just wanted to say I feel bad about not bringing in more tonight.”
He pats me on the back and tells me to not worry about it. And then that’s it; I’m still part of the team. Across the street, I spot Jayne meeting up with another one of her randoms. She spreads her arms wide as if trying to explain herself, and then the man grabs her by the wrist and pulls her away a little too aggressively for my taste. It looks bad, and I don’t like it.
“Guys…,” I loud whisper to Chewie and Flash who are busy scrolling through their phones. “Jayne’s in trouble.”
The next thing I know, we’re all three heading down the alley after Jayne and her random. I keep my Hulk head tucked under my arm while trying to step lightly so we don’t get noticed, but it isn’t easy in the suit. My foam feet thud and squish loudly no matter how lightly I try to step. Flash treads normally as if he’s completely unaware we’re trying to stay undetected. I take the lead and we duck behind a dumpster. We move forward and hang close to the walls to stay hidden in the shadows where possible. Jayne and the random hit the end of the alley, and we pick up the pace and turn the corner just in time to see them go into an apartment building. It’s not the most welcoming-looking place. A small staircase at the front leads up to a single screen door that hangs ajar. We follow. Inside, is a dark corridor that eventually opens up into a small courtyard with a dirty swimming pool and broken patio chairs. There’s no way to know which apartment Jayne’s in, but we scan the windows above us anyway as if some small clue might give them away. I’m sure a picture of Jayne Mansfield taped to a window would be too much to ask for.
“We should call her cell,” I whisper. Chewie whips out his phone and tries to dial her but doesn’t get reception.
“I don’t know, man,” Flash whispers. He sounds worried. “Maybe we should go back out to the street and try calling her again from there.”
“I agree,” Chewie says.
I can see they’re both scared, but maybe they have a point. Nothing about this feels good. There’s a crash somewhere nearby, glass breaking maybe, and then there’s shouting.
“I’m going to go try to call from the street,” Flash says, and then they’re both gone before I can even look over my shoulder. I’m alone in the dark courtyard in the middle of the night, and I definitely don’t feel safe. Jesus, maybe Lydia’s right. This is dangerous. More importantly, it’s stupid. A door on the ground floor opens, and a woman steps out. The glow of her porchlight lands harshly on her face as she pulls a trash bag down her steps. She looks at me like she can’t figure out whether or not she knows me.
“Hulk?” she asks. It’s Jayne. Instead of the big puffy dome of blonde hair I’m used to seeing, she’s now a brunette with a buzz-cut.
“Jayne?” I call out.
“Yeah, it’s me,” she says as she sets the trash down and tussles her hair. Her sultry Jayne Mansfield voice is gone. I must look confused because she seems to understand I’m not sure who I’m looking at.
“I guess you’ve never seen me out of costume.”
She looks at least a decade older, and I realize she’s probably not the naïve kid I thought she was. The cute voice she normally speaks has been replaced by a throatier one with a slight southern accent that sounds like it’s smoked too many cigarettes.
“What are you doing here?” she asks.
“We followed you. We thought you were in trouble. I saw that guy pull you away…”
“Oh, that was just Don. He wasn’t in the best mood.”
She laughs, and so do I but only because it feels like the polite thing to do.
“So, you’re okay then?”
“Yeah, I’m good. My shoulder’s gonna be sore tomorrow, but that’s all. Could be worse…”.
“Who are those people you keep leaving with during our shifts?
I regret the words as soon as they leave my mouth. It feels like I’m intruding. She sets the garbage bag down, and her eyes turn seductive as she pretends to smoke a cigarette. She’s Jayne again.
“You’ll have to ask my agent,” she says in that same cutesy voice I’m used to hearing. She laughs, but I’ve still crossed a line I shouldn’t have.
“Alright. Well, goodnight then,” I say as I turn to leave. It really isn’t my place to interfere anyway.
“It’s nothing you should concern yourself with, but thanks for asking.”
I nod and wave goodbye with my big purple hand.
Back out on the street, I don’t see Flash or Chewie anywhere. I stop to take off my Hulk gloves so I can text Lydia I’m on my way home. She’s going to ask me if I quit, and I don’t know how I’m going to answer. Maybe I could post ads online for gigs at kids’ birthday parties and then also build up some buzz by standing out in front of our building in costume a few hours a day. This could be something I do on weekends while I do something more conventional Monday through Friday.
I’m halfway home and passing Gilson’s Liquor as I run the impending conversation with Lydia through my head when I’m surprised to see her walking toward me.
“Hey,” she says before pecking me on the lips.
“Hey…”. I’m completely caught off-guard. “What are you doing? You shouldn’t be out here this late.”
“I wanted to walk home with you.”
“I felt bad about this morning. I know how much you enjoy what you do. So, I don’t know… maybe we don’t have to decide anything right now? Maybe you could just start looking for something else while you keep doing this,” she says motioning to my suit.
God bless her. I can’t believe what I’m hearing. She’s come to her senses. I’m about to tell her how thrilled I am when there’s a tap on my shoulder, and I find myself face-to-face with the green frog, only he doesn’t have his head on, and I can see he’s a small wide-eyed man with bad teeth and a temper. He points a big buck knife that looks sharp enough to carve cement at me.
“Put your head on and take picture,” he says as he jabs the blade at my face. I wince and catch my reflection in Gilson’s front window. I put my hands up because I don’t want trouble, and my Hulk head falls onto the sidewalk.
“Pick it up!” shouts the green frog.
I’m too scared to move, but he repeats the order so I slowly lean down to reach for the head.
“We don’t have any money,” Lydia says.
The frog turns and slowly raises the knife to Lydia’s face. Seeing the blade near her sends me into a rage, and I tackle him with everything I have. We land hard in the street, but I’m up quick. I stomp my heaviest Hulk foot I can manage down onto his chest. My instinct is to pick him up and raise him up above my head so I can smash him into the concrete. I get my arms low under him and heave. I catch sight of my reflection in Gilson’s front window again as I lift him up, and I’m surprised at how menacing and badass I actually look. I let out my deepest hulk roar, but my side explodes in pain. My legs buckle, and I fall back onto the pavement. The green frog is small, but his dead weight landing on top crushes me into the sidewalk. My side feels like it’s on fire, and I know he stuck me. I don’t need to see it to know it’s bad.
I’m on my back bleeding all over the sidewalk and looking up at Lydia’s face hovering over me. She’s backdropped against a cloudy dirty night sky, and all I can think about is how there’s no way she’ll ever let me be the Hulk again now. She tells me to stay calm, and it occurs to me that I think I might actually be okay with this being my last night. Maybe I do need a real job. Stability. Paychecks. Lydia says to hang in there, but it’s not easy. It’s also not easy letting the best part of myself go against my will, but I guess that’s what you sign up for when you agree to share your life with another person. You make sacrifices. The Hulk will be mine. I’ll sacrifice things for her, and she’ll do the same for me. I think that’s how it’s supposed to work. Then again, there will always be people willing to pay for memories, and kids have birthday parties every single weekend of the year. So, maybe the door stays open just a crack?
Raised in San Antonio, Texas, Josh Lopez holds a B.A. in English from the University of California-Irvine and a M.F.A. in fiction from Texas State University, where he teaches composition and undergraduate creative writing. He has completed a first novel entitled “Star Kid” and is currently working on a short story collection. He lives and writes in San Marcos, Texas.