by Jeremy Nelson
When people take the time to ask me who I am and how I got to be here today, I tell them about my therapist and the conversations we had about my condition and how I endured. I tell them about my childhood and the end of a dream. I was a failed superhero.
Until I sought professional help, my life consisted of scrimping to ﬁx the car, counting the days to the next paycheck and desperate attempts to maintain a romantic relationship with anyone. I’d felt unfulﬁlled for as long as I could remember. It seemed that I was missing a part of my life. A dream, or pursuit, or something intangible that each of my few friends seemed to possess. Something they had which I had missing, something which brought them meaning in everyday monotony.
Months working at an electronics shop gave me the ﬁnancial stability to do what my friends and parents had long suggested, and I made an appointment. Dr. Condon wanted the full story of my life, and over a period of months I told him everything there was to know.
One June afternoon Dr. Condon announced to me that I had good cause for happiness. He said that I would always have one consolation: that I was a man who knew why I was unhappy. My therapist made very clear the privilege that this knowledge afforded me. I found Dr. Condon’s delight at his discovery inappropriate. I sat, hollow-cheeked, looking at him with insomia-shadowed eyes, sure that I was being made fun of. Instead, my insensitive therapist was about to change my life.
This is some of what I told him. My name is Sam Roth. I grew up next to Mount Tabor, in a home that was well-off but not wealthy. My father has always capitalized on sharing a name with a literary icon. When we had guests over for dinner it was only guests. “My father’s side of the family moved west in the twenties, but we still do keep in touch. A great writer, Philip, and a swell guy.” None of our guests were in a position to disagree. As an eleven-year-old I took his words very seriously and revered the shelf dedicated to our distant relation. It conﬁrmed what I’d always suspected—that I was special and meant for great things. It was all there in the name, in the four letters that to me read like an alternate tetragrammaton from some prophetic scripture. Roth.
In my eyes, my father knew most of all there was to know in the world. His love of Roth and his work was transposed in my mind into near-worship of the man. Roth’s authorial portraits spoke of wisdom, and his face on the cover of TIME—“Roth” written in bold, the cover framed and hanging in our hallway—was conﬁrmation to me that my distant cousin was as signiﬁcant as any statesman or world event.
I told Dr. Condon about my troubles in school, another major factor in my childhood. I had talent for being a victim. I never fought back. During lunch and recess I tended to sit quietly, reading or looking off into daydreams. When I spoke, it was usually to point out to someone that he or she was wrong. Said someone would get offended, and soon I’d have a sixth-grader’s ﬁst in my face. This wasn’t unusual, and since I never told on anyone and hardly ever cried, the teachers got used to it happening as well.
My worst enemy was an eighth-grader named Kyle. Kyle Stoker. When his name came up in conversation, kids would whisper. Since he was older than me I didn’t meet him often, but whenever I failed to keep from being seen he’d always ﬁnd some reason to rough me up. Once, when asked to explain by his cohort of athletically gifted friends, he said, “Aw, I had to. Just look at him.” And they turned to see me sniveling pathetic on the ﬂoor, and nodded in understanding. I wasn’t his only victim, but I was his favorite. I was the only one he’d honored with a nickname: “Sissy Sam.” It wasn’t clever, but it was straightforward.
reading when I head the players—Allie and Michelle—laugh at Kyle’s latest exploits
at my expense.
“You know what I heard?” Allie said.
“Zach says his dad knows Kyle’s dad, and that Zach’s dad told him that Kyle’s dad was from England.”
“Well, you know how Kyle’s a big Timbers fan? He has all those shirts?” Michelle nodded seriously. She held the tetherball in both hands. Allie went on. “So he heard that Kyle’s dad was a real-life soccer hooligan in England.”
“Really? A hooligan? Is that a gang or something?”
“Kind of. Well, you know how hooligans are all, you know, violent and stuff? Well, that makes sense, right? About Kyle, I mean.” Michelle kept on nodding, and I couldn’t help myself.
“It’s football,” I said, seated by the tree. “They call soccer football in England.”
“Shut up, everyone knows that,” Allie said. And then they left me alone to wonder why my dad couldn’t be a football hooligan too.
I might have stayed out of trouble, even with my inherited sense of entitlement as a Roth and with Kyle out to get me. What doomed me was the other talent I could claim to have. I was a prodigious reader, and loved words. Crossword puzzles, puns and anagrams were fascinating to me. My father and I spent Sunday afternoons working on the Times crossword together. Wonderful afternoons when I felt useful, loving each time I called up a word my father had just out of reach.
Few of the cultural clues in the crossword made sense to me. In retrospect, it’s clear that I had only a shallow understanding of the novels I read then, but I could comprehend, in a literal sense, the words in front of me. I did my best to make my way drained through my eleven-year-old mind like water through a sieve. There were parts, though—mostly the ones that had to do with sex—that did make a great impression on me, despite my confusion as to why Roth seemed so preoccupied with the subject.
I understood that Phillip and Sam Roth weren’t the same person. I truly did, but the distinction in my mind was confused by my own sense of self-importance. I needed to “act out” my feelings, as my therapist would say. I needed to perform my fantasy. I wanted to be a hero, someone that could live up to all that admiration my father placed in the Roth name. Since I wasn’t quite deluded enough to forget that I was a scrawny eleven-year-old, I needed some other identity I could take on. I wanted to be a superhero.
Superheroes always had an alternate identity, and that was the best part about them. I could make my bullied, ineffectual self a secret identity for the greater person that I knew I could be. I wanted to be a crimesolver like Batman and superhuman like Wolverine. Fantasizing about all the heroic deeds I’d do after bedtime made my mundane waking hours sparkle with possibility. The lights would go out, and I’d imagine taking the secret chute in my closet to my basement hideout, where I’d suit up and ﬂy out into the night: seven feet tall, striking fear throughout the criminal underworld, keeping my metropolis, Portland, safe from evildoers.
Fantasies weren’t enough for me. I so badly wanted it to be real. After another day of teasing and my shirt ripped, I went home and dug through the basement until I found where all the winter clothes were kept. That evening I had hidden in my room a pair of long underwear and a sweater, all black. It was the ﬁrst step in bringing my dreams to fruition. I was so excited that I hardly slept that night. At school the next day I skipped reading during lunch and went down to the art room, where a teacher I didn’t know ﬁddled with the grade-book. I lied about having left something and pretended to rummage in the desks. When he turned away I snatched a tube of yellow acrylic paint costume.
Black and yellow seemed like a good, high-contrast way to begin building an image, but I soon discovered that all of my drafted costume sketches looked like wasps. Given that the colors were all I had to work with, the result was inevitable.
I spent a lot of time trying to ﬁnd a name for myself. My real self, not my school-going disguise. In the end I did what I did best—treated it like a puzzle. I tried to reverse-engineer my name into something a superhero might have used to disguise (and cleverly hint at) his true identity. It kept me occupied for days. I found that I didn’t have many options to chose from. “Wroth,” was one, but it wasn’t promising. First of all, I’d have to be angry all the time, and that didn’t seem to be the sort of superhero the general public would love and adore. By including my ﬁrst name I came up with some near-nonsense anagrams like “Armeth Soul,” which sounded like a bad metal band and “Solar Thume,” which no amount of sci-ﬁ backstory could account for. I decided on the anagram which made the most sense, and that was how I became “Thor.”
With my name came a brief crisis in which I wrestled with the morality of taking the name of an extant hero—and alleged god—as my own, but the solution was already there: the hammer-wielding Norseman was, in fact, my distant cousin.
My new nordic bloodline gave me much more to work with in terms of costume design. I picked out my favorite runes and chose as my motif a prominent letter “T,” shaped into a hammer. For my weapon I took an actual hammer from an old toolbox in the garage. I completed my disguise with a pair of swimming goggles and a shower cap painted with a swooping pair of horns. I was ready for my ﬁrst adventure.
I made my test run one Sunday night, when my parents were both out for a concert. Hammer in hand, I headed straight for one of my favorite places in the neighborhood. Our house was only a few blocks from Mount Tabor park, and on the weekends my family would hike through the trails and try to spot where the singing birds were perched.
My parents were convinced that my fascination for the squat building in the park was nothing short of disgusting, but I couldn’t help myself. It’s shape and design were so odd, and there was something almost medieval about the round turret and the gabled roof over the bench. Though it hardly ever smelled bad, my parents couldn’t look past the fact that it was a toilet. I loved its looks, but I also loved it because it was on Mount Tabor, and looked over my whole neighborhood and the city across the river.
I slipped through the trees with speed I’d never had before. It was late enough that there weren’t many people hiking through the smaller trails. Farther up the hill I heard people playing basketball, but behind the trees I was unseen. A superhero should only be seen when he wants his presence known.
The toilet—my as-yet-unnamed base of operations—was empty of people. I sat on the bench and surveyed the city below. Houses upon houses, Thor’s domain, where evildoers quake with fear. I brandished my hammer, felt its weight. Readying myself in case a criminal were to show up. None did, but I heard the dribble of a basketball coming towards me, and along with it a voice that would have set Valhalla’s alarm bells clanging.
Years of habit took hold of me, and I forgot all about my hammer and my new true identity. I tore off my goggles, ready to run, but it was too late. The worst night of my childhood was well under way.
Kyle Stoker, with two of his goons, rounded the corner and saw me standing on the bench by the restroom, dressed like a scandinavian hornet. I was too mortiﬁed to move, and Kyle stood, unable to process what he saw until his instincts kicked in. Kyle Stoker knew a victim when he saw one.
All of my superhuman speed vanished when I tried to run away. Kyle, laughing, nudged me into the ground from behind, just like how police cars do in a high-speed chase.
to speak slowly because he was still laughing at me. Tears were in my eyes but I felt like someone else was crying. His Timbers jersey was up against my face and I saw at once the similarity of the logo to the hammer I’d traced onto my sweater. I was being mocked at every turn. I swung the hammer at Kyle, but he had me pinned before I could get any leverage.
“Get off!” I said. My voice squeaked.
“Sissy Sam, you are too much. Guys, he missed getting beat on so much he came to ﬁnd me! On a weekend!” I tried to sit up, swing my legs, anything, but Kyle Stoker wouldn’t budge.
“We should give him what he wants,” one of his goons said. I twisted my neck to get a look at him and add him to my list of villains. His was a new face, but his look of glee was familiar. The strong preying on the weak. But I wasn’t supposed to be weak anymore.
He and the other villain waited until Kyle began the proceedings with a jab at my shoulder. Kicks and punches followed. It was one of the worst beatings I’d ever receive. “Stop!” I’d said. I begged them to let me go.
Kyle chanted in my face. “No pity in the Rose City!” His voice rang out from the mountain, through the trees and over my neighborhood. “No mercy! No sissies in the Rose City!”
My career as a superhero was ended. And that night, says my therapist, was the root of my troubles.
He spoke at length about how uniquely vulnerable I was that night, and how trauma can have a lasting impact on how one perceives the world. I did not need much convincing. “What you have to do,” said Dr. Condon, “is let that poor child out, out somewhere safe where he can begin to trust the world again. Where he can believe that his fantasies do have a place in life, where they can breathe and perhaps one day be realized.”
That day I went to the library and checked out a stack of comic books I’d told myself that I’d outgrown long ago. Reading in my one-bedroom apartment I felt as if I were reacquainting myself with long-lost friends. I was older, and so were my heroes. The computer-generated art had a plastic look to it. But the stories were mostly the same. One person out to challenge the evildoers of the world. The hero stumbling into obstacle after obstacle, only to overcome everything and go on ﬁghting. I thought back on my own misadventure, how I’d never recovered. I felt ashamed, and it was wonderful because for so long I was numb to everything. And I wasn’t numb anymore, no, I desperately wanted to help that kid in his silly costume and tell him that his dreams were safe with me.
There’s a children’s center in Southeast Portland, a dinky place I sometimes call the Hideout. I bought the business off an old lady looking to retire. We say that the Roth Center provides an arts-based curriculum, catering towards emotionally vulnerable and sensitive children, but I don’t see it that way. During the summer we run a camp where the kids do crafts, preparing costumes for drama practice. Since we have so many comic books on the shelves, the center has a lot of three-feet tall superheroes running around. And we let them script their own adventures. Everyone gets a turn at being the hero, of course, foiling villains out to “take over the world.” It’s a self-esteem boosting exercise. I let them live out their fantasies a little–or, at least, keep them safe from their peers who aren’t so tolerant of the fantastic. I make a point of bringing up the subject, but these kids don’t need me to tell them about bullying. They’ve had plenty of experience themselves. “We don’t like bullies. We should get rid of them,” they tell me. “No bullies in the Rose City.”
They keep a touch of the fantastic in my life.
© 2011 Jeremy Nelson