Frank used to love his job. Leaping buildings in a single bound! Taking down criminals without breaking a sweat! America had lapped it up, and he had lapped up their adoration for him. And oh, how they adored him. He’d had to hire a secretary just to sort his fan mail. He’d been on the covers of TIME, Vogue, People, you name it. God, he had loved being loved.
But that was before he had thrown out his back lifting a car. Before he’d started to be approached with brand deals for Rogaine instead of Calvin Klein. Before he’d found himself dreading having to work past 9 p.m. Before he’d laid off his secretary, closed his P.O. box, and shoved his Mr. Metropolis suit to the back of his closet.
Now, Frank could usually walk down the street without being recognized. Now, he only put on the Mr. Metropolis mantle when visiting Make-A-Wish kids or attending the annual World Superhero Union holiday party. The rest of the time, he was just Frank: middle-aged, balding, cargo-short-wearing, HOA member, cat dad Frank.
He figured he was happy enough. Since his retirement, he had picked up several hobbies. He built a wobbly table. He knitted lumpy sweaters for his cats. He auditioned for, and was not cast in, a community theater production of Guys and Dolls. He wrote a novel that was, in a word, bad.
“I do worry about you, Frank,” his sister Trudy told him as she picked up Frank’s three nephews from babysitting. “Are you sure you’re happy? Don’t you miss it?”
Frank didn’t think those two things were mutually exclusive, at least in theory. But the truth was, he did miss the satisfaction that came with a long day of protecting the Tri-State Area from evil, and the truth was, maybe he wasn’t sure he was happy.
“Maybe you should start seeing someone.”
Frank hadn’t been in a serious relationship for the better part of a decade now, and he wasn’t sure he was ready to hop back into the dating scene at the moment.
“I meant a therapist, but that, too.”
His therapist was a small woman, with gray hair pulled back into a severe bun and tiny, perfectly round spectacles perched on her nose. Her office was tiny and filled to the brim with pillows and knicknacks. The walls were covered in cheesy motivational posters that Frank thought he recognized from his elementary school classrooms: Hang in there! urged a kitten dangling from a branch, while the tail of a comet on the poster above spelled out, Shoot for the moon — even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars. Frank had landed among the stars once, and thought they weren’t all they were cracked up to be. On one side of his chair was a bookshelf that contained books with titles like, Is My Kid an Empath? and 10 Habits of Healthy Divorced Co-Parents. On the other was a table that held a Margaritaville-themed snowglobe and what seemed like an excessive number of tissue boxes.
Dr. Daczkowski flicked on a white noise machine next to the door and lifted her clipboard. “So, Frank,” she said, skimming over his intake forms. “What brings you here today? Anything troubling you?”
Frank had been hoping she could tell him that. He shrugged and said something about retirement and a general feeling of ennui.
“I see. Any family history of depression?” Not that he knew of. “Are you currently in a relationship?” No. “Do you drink?” Only kombucha, which the doctor told him did not actually constitute an alcoholic beverage.
At the end of the session, Dr. Daczkowski diagnosed him with generalized anxiety disorder and a midlife crisis, and told him to come back in a week.
The therapist’s office was located right above the Stars and Stripes Build-a-Burger, and it became habit for him to eat there after his weekly appointment. This was partly as a reward for subjecting himself to the mortifying ordeal of being known, but mostly because the smell of french fries wafted upstairs and made him crave whatever cholesterol-raising food he could get his hands on.
The cashier today was Andy, a gangly teen with an acne problem. Frank liked Andy a lot, probably because he got the feeling that Andy genuinely didn’t recognize his alter ego. He was just Frank the Regular. Regular customer, regular guy.
“Hey, Frank,” Andy said. “The usual?”
Frank was about to nod, but then he remembered his therapist’s suggestion that he try new things, try to put some excitement back in his life. So he shook his head and ordered a double bacon cheeseburger instead. He didn’t actually like bacon all that much, but that’s what would make it new and exciting.
He took the little card holder with his order number — lucky number 13 — and sat in his usual stool on the bar against the window. Sometimes he brought a crossword puzzle or his e-reader to keep himself occupied while he ate, but mostly he was content with people-watching.
Watching the ordinary citizens of the greater metropolitan area walk by, happy and safe, made him feel better about all the decisions in his life that had led him to this moment in the Build-a-Burger.
Andy came by with Frank’s burger and fries and a root beer float. It did not take Frank long to remember there was a reason he never ordered bacon on his cheeseburger. He peeled the greasy strips of meat off of the equally greasy bun, tragically siphoning away some melted cheese with them, and felt a little rueful both at the two dollars that had gone to waste and his failure to break from routine. Oh, well. He had a whole week before he had to report back to his therapist.
His thoughts were interrupted by a voice from behind him. “Frank?”
He turned to see Violet Valenti, or as she was better known, Electra, the superhuman equivalent of a live wire. Her face lit up. “Frank! I thought it was you, old man. How are ya?”
“Hi, Vi,” Frank said. “I’m doing good, I guess.”
“You guess?” Violet sat down on the stool next to him without asking. “It’s been a while since I heard from you. I was starting to worry you’d been eaten by your cats.”
Mr. Metropolis and Electra had brought down many a criminal mastermind together, and had worked with each other on and off for the better part of fifteen years. But Violet was over a decade younger than Frank, and so didn’t seem to have plans of retiring any time soon. Though she was clearly off the clock, Frank could feel the hairs on his arm stand at attention with the static electricity radiating off her.
“It’s quiet,” Frank said. “But I don’t mind that. It’s nice.”
Violet nodded and leaned back in her chair. “It’s been pretty quiet on the crime-fighting front, too, if I’m being honest. Me and Stratosphere took down the Chimera gang a couple of months ago, and it’s just been a bit of fixing fallen electrical wires and jumpstarting cars here and there since then. Been convenient, actually. Wedding planning’s more work that I bargained for.”
Frank vaguely recalled a bit in the tabloids a few months ago mentioning Electra and her girlfriend “taking their relationship to the next level.” He made a polite inquiry about it, trying to ignore the worry he had misremembered or the fear she might take offense to the question for some reason.
Violet grinned. “Yeah. Gabby and I just bought a house together, actually. I’ve been meaning to drop you a line — we’re having a housewarming party this Sunday. You should come! It’s not going to be anything fancy, just a backyard barbeque sort of thing. Hot dogs and cornhole and the like.”
Before Frank could formulate an answer, Andy the cashier called a number and Violet sprang to her feet. “That’s me,” she said. “Sorry, can’t stay. The missus won’t be happy if I let her milkshake melt.”
As the door jingled shut behind her, Frank mulled her invitation over as he finished the rest of his fries. He hadn’t been to anything that one could consider a party in quite a while. Part of him wanted to politely turn down the invitation. He liked to spend his Sundays tending his garden or curling up with a good book and some decaffeinated tea. But he thought about his therapist’s challenge, and looked down at the sad strips of bacon congealing in cooling fat, and made a promise to himself that he would go.
He had half expected to be regretting that promise come Sunday, but he found himself looking forward to the barbeque. Not that he didn’t still have a fair bit of anxiety. He’d stood in front of his closet for a full ten minutes dithering over whether a tropical shirt would be too tacky or a button-up too formal. He’d eventually settled on the Hawaiian shirt, because it didn’t emphasize his gut as much, and hoped he wouldn’t regret it.
The late spring sun had turned the inside of his beige sedan into an oven as Frank got in and plugged Violet’s address into Google Maps. Trudy had made fun of the car when Frank first got it. Can’t you just fly wherever you need to go? Technically, yes, but flying was getting tiring as he got up in years, and besides, it was rather conspicuous, and besides, his disheveled, wind-swept, post-flight look had long ceased to be sexy and was now just sad. Why don’t you at least get a sportscar or something? You’re a celebrity, for God’s sake. Frank actually quite liked that no one suspected his tiny, boring Honda belonged to a superhero. Well, if you’re not gonna buy yourself a Lambo, will you buy one for me? Frank had compromised by buying his sister a nice minivan. Money hadn’t been much of a concern for him for some time now.
When Frank had pictured the house Violet said she’d just bought, he’d thought it would be something like his modest suburban two-story. But, as the GPS led him into a neighborhood of palatial mansions overlooking sprawling, perfectly manicured lawns, Frank realized that he should have expected something flashier for the home of an international celebrity. Electra and Gabby’s long driveway was already lined with cars, and Frank had to park down the street.
As he headed towards the rear of the house, Frank could hear the party — a crowd murmuring pleasantly, muffled music he could just barely identify as Jimmy Buffett, children shrieking and splashing in the pool. He swallowed hard and gripped the bottle of expensive whiskey he’d brought as a housewarming gift. Violet liked whiskey, didn’t she? But oh God, what if Gabby didn’t? Would she be offended? Maybe he should have brought something more practical, anyway, like a KitchenAid or something. But maybe they already had a KitchenAid.
Frank shook himself out of it and did the breathing exercises his therapist had taught him. You’re going to have fun, he told himself. Just be yourself. People like you, remember?
Violet hadn’t been lying when she said it was just a backyard barbeque — it was in her backyard, after all, and there were hot dogs and cornhole, and no one was dressed up — but there were easily over a hundred people there, and in addition to cornhole there was croquet and bocce ball and a live band, and the hot dogs were innumerable and catered.
He hesitated at the edge of the crowd, but luckily it didn’t take Violet long to catch sight of Frank. Her face broke into a smile, and she bounced over to him.
“Frank!” she said. “You made it!”
He nodded and managed a greeting and handed her the whiskey. She accepted it and grinned wider.
“Aww, my favorite! I can’t believe you remembered. Here, let me introduce you to Gabby.” Violet caught the elbow of a short Black woman in a flower-print dress. “Gabs, babe, this is Frank.”
Gabby squinted at Frank for a moment, then recognized him. “Mr. Metropolis!” She stuck out her hand for him to shake. “It’s great to meet you. I’m a huge fan.”
Frank replied with the appropriate pleasantries. He tried to recall some anecdote or anything to keep the conversation flowing naturally, maybe to express how genuinely happy he was to meet Violet’s fiancée, but before he could stammer much else out, the couple caught sight of a family arriving. Violet turned half-apologetically to Frank. “Sorry, old man. Gotta say hi to the future in-laws. Catch up later?”
Frank only had time to nod before she was gone, and he was by himself. He scanned the crowd for anyone he knew, but while he was sure Violet had invited other superheroes, he had always been better at identifying suits than faces. Besides, a new generation had started to come up, and they wouldn’t know him at all.
He headed over to the buffet, figuring it was a good enough place to start, and maybe a socially acceptable place to not talk to anyone for a bit. Much to his dismay, he discovered as he got closer that he and Violet had very different definitions of what constituted a hot dog. Frank hadn’t known hot dogs could be vegetarian. It seemed like an oxymoron to him, and he read with more than a little trepidation the description of the 100% organic vegan gluten-free nut-free cruelty-free fair trade meat substitute made locally and sustainably with soy tofu pea proteins mung beans and zero carbon footprint.
“They’re better than they sound.” Frank turned around to see a short man in a pink cardigan looking at him through a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. The man continued in a faint British accent. “I’ve had them before. They catered the library fundraiser this year.”
Frank couldn’t think of anything to say. He wished he had something to say.
The man didn’t seem put off by Frank’s aloofness. He smiled at Frank. He had a remarkably warm smile.
“I’m Clarence,” the man said when Frank continued to be dumbfounded.
“Clarence,” Frank said, finding his voice. “I’m Frank. It’s nice to meet you and, uh, nice to hear that the hot dogs aren’t too bad.”
Clarence chuckled and gathered a plate and a healthy stack of napkins. “It’s nice to meet you, too, Frank.”
Frank took a plate and followed Clarence down the line of fraudulent sausages. He refused to let the conversation peter out. “How do you know Violet? Or, I mean, or Gabby.”
There was the smile again. “Gabby, yes. We work together, down at the public library. A lovely young woman. And you know Violet?”
Frank nodded as he gingerly placed a rubbery sausage onto an organic, gluten-free, whole-grain, millet-and-buckwheat-blend bun. “We used to be coworkers too, actually.”
It took Clarence a moment to understand what this meant. “With Violet? So you must be a…”
Frank was too embarrassed to finish the sentence. “I guess I am,” he said.
Clarence shook his head as he slathered an ungodly amount of organic, gluten-free, stone-ground Dijon mustard onto his hot dog. “You’ll have to forgive my ignorance. I admit I never paid much attention to that whole world of superheroes before Gabby and Violet became more serious.”
Frank found he was relieved that Clarence didn’t have any preconceived notions about Mr. Metropolis. “No worries at all. I’m retired. Haven’t been out in the field for oh, five years now.” Five years? Had it really been that long?
Clarence gently balanced his plate in the crook of his arm as he filled a glass with organic, gluten-free, freshly squeezed lemonade. “Retirement, eh? I can’t see myself retiring from the library until I die. Or until they kick me out. I suppose it’s cushier work than crime-fighting, though. Scanning books is not exactly back-breaking labor.”
“Not compared to lifting cars, maybe not,” Frank said, hoping his tone came across as appropriately joking.
Clarence raised his greying eyebrows. “Lifting cars? Color me impressed.”
Frank blushed slightly. “I’m afraid I’m awfully out of shape at the moment.”
“Well, I’m sure you won’t have to lift any cars today, anyway. Though I’m sure if the need for a superhero arose, you’d be more than able to save us all.”
“Oh, Electra — Violet — would certainly beat me to it. She’s far more capable.”
There was that smile again. “She’s capable, alright, but I wouldn’t sell myself short if I were you, Frank.”
Clarence was easy to talk to. It had been a long time since Frank had met anyone so easy to talk to. So easy to talk to, in fact, that Frank was surprised to look down at his watch and realize that two hours had gone by. Usually time crawled by at an agonizingly slow pace when he was at a crowded event.
Clarence looked down at his own watch. “Oh, bollocks,” he swore — an endearingly quaint curse. “I’ve got a shift at the library at quarter past. I’ve got to go, but — here.” Clarence took a napkin from the buffet table and a fountain pen from his pocket and jotted something down before handing it to Frank. “It was such a pleasure to meet you, Frank,” he said, and smiled.
Frank watched him until he disappeared into the crowd, then slowly unfolded the napkin. A phone number had been written neatly in blue ink, and below it:
Please call me any time.
Frank grinned like an idiot, and decided that it was too beautiful a day not to fly home.