Our little boy is dead but we still buy him toys. It sounds weird to say it like that, for a lot of reasons, but it’s one of those collectible toys, keeps re-issuing set after set, and he was alive when we started. That’s why I spend early Sunday morning fighting a young peroxide mom in yoga pants and Coach in a toy store for the last box. I beat her to it by about three steps. She tries everything – pity, guilt, even flirting. When nothing else works, she goes to the last resort: anger.
“I bet you don’t even have a kid,” she says. “I bet you’re just one of those collectors. Why don’t you just order it over the internet?”
Two years ago I’d have belted her in the mouth.
“I’m sorry,” I say instead, taking the box. It’s streaked with colors, a picture of the earth across the front with the oceans glowing like blue neon and overlaid with pictures of the heroes’ faces. It really stands out, jumps off the shelf at you.
The cashier is a middle-aged woman, probably ten years older than me. They make her wear that humiliating uniform: the orange pinstriped vest, the string tie, a balloon tied to her pudgy wrist with a cheap plastic ribbon. The catch is, when some kid at the checkout line asks about her balloon, she has to give it to him. She didn’t use quite enough ribbon this morning so every time she lowers her hand to the register, the balloon bumps her in the head.
I hand her the box. When she flips it over to scan it, I can see the back has pictures of the actual action figures, all six of them, plus their detachable tradable collectible attachments to help them survive, thrive, and dive in their amazing watery world, to fight evil at ever watery turn and to bring the good in the world together. “All Connected like the Seas!” it exclaims on the back. That’s the whole marketing hook. The seas aren’t really separate, even though we give them all separate names. It’s just one body of water really. So all these superheroes are really connected to us. Or to each other. Whatever.
“Well,” she says after we do the credit card ballet, “I hope you enjoy it.” Then she smiles real big and says, like she’s joking, “Although…aren’t you a little old for this?”
I look at her, point at the balloon.
“Lady, aren’t you a little old for this?”
Outside, the damndest thing happens. The street is empty. It’s early Sunday and nobody’s out yet. The sun is up but low. A few grayed piles of slush, peppered with black flecks, linger in the shadowy places. I’m walking toward the laundromat, my last stop for the morning. The dryer should be just about done. That’s when it happens. I don’t know where it comes from, but a deer skitters out into the street. A fucking deer. Right in the middle of Main Street. It looks nervous. I freeze. My heart beats faster. I look around to see if there’s anyone to confirm that this is actually happening, but the street is empty. We look at each other. Just as quickly, it runs down an alley and is gone. All that’s left in the road is a small pile of shit.
In the laundromat it’s just me and an old black man, probably mid-fifties, reading the paper and drinking Styrofoam cofee. He couldn’t have seen the deer. I set the Super Sea Trade League Strike Force™ down on a chair and go to the dryer. In walk four white kids, early twenties-ish. Concert tee shirts. You could hear them coming. Two of them are carrying laundry baskets.
One of them very politely asks the black man which machine his stuff is in. He eyes them for a second, then points with a slow finger.
“Good,” the kid says, “Because I don’t want my clothes near no nigger’s.”
The black guy goes back to his newspaper, a look on his face like this isn’t the first time.
But the white kids don’t let up.
“This nigger has to go,” says the talkative one with the tattoos. “He shouldn’t be in here.” The four of them walk at him. I can’t believe this is happening. Then—and this is the part that pisses me off—they smile at me. Like I’m on their side. The black guy folds his newspaper carefully and puts it on the chair next to him and stands. We make eye contact.
“I’m with you,” I say.
That draws their attention – that and they’re first noticing that he’s a head taller than any of them.
“Sit down,” one of them barks at me, then adds, “Nigger lover.”
“Take your stuff and get out of here,” I say.
The one with the tattoos punches me. It doesn’t knock me down, but I turn and taste blood.
“That’s what happens to nigger lovers around here,” he says.
Before he can turn away, I grab him by his collar and pick him up and slam him back down hard on the gritted linoleum floor. His head bounces like one of those overinflated green balls they keep in caged bins at toy stores.
The three remaining white kids glare, but now they don’t like the odds. They cuss and threaten but gather their woozy friend and their laundry and they leave.
“You want me to call an ambulance?” asks the black guy, motioning to my bloody lip.
“No,” I say and scoop my clothes out of the dryer. “I got to get home.”
“Don’t forget your bag,” he says as I’m leaving. I gather up the Super Sea Trade League Strike Force™.
“You going to be okay?” I ask before I walk out. “What if they come back?”
“Someone’s always coming back,” he says.
A teacher at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy just outside Chicago in Aurora, Illinois, Adam Kotlarczyk‘s fiction and scholarship has recently appeared in Yellow Chair Review, Notes on American Literature, and the Illinois Association for Gifted Children Journal. He has a PhD in American literature and enjoys traveling with his wife.