“The Reluctant Son of a Fake Hero” by Joe Dornich

At noon I climb out of the mouth of the Hollywood/Highland metro station just in time to see the 212 bus thunder past, and Frank’s cape billow in its wake. He’s striking the classic pose – chest out, hands fisted on his hips – and as much as I hate to admit it, he looks pretty good. Considering. He’s kept up his physique. He’s got actual muscles beneath his suit, unlike most of the losers out here in their Halloween costumes with the drawn-on pecs, and the injection-molded abs.

There are few tourists on the boulevard at this time of day, but soon a family of three stops to admire Frank. A series of photos are taken. In one, Frank wraps an arm around the wife, while flexing the other so his bicep bulges against the blue fabric of his suit. In another Frank picks up their daughter, a chubby blonde in pink overalls. He places the girl on his shoulder, squares his jaw, and points a fist to the sky. Then the husband hands Frank some money.

I walk up as they leave.

“A dollar?” Frank says in lieu of a greeting. “I pick up their little piglet and the best they can do is a dollar. Jesus. I gotta start charging by the pound.”

Then Frank balls up the money and sticks it in the fanny pack he keeps hidden beneath his cape.

This is my father.

*        *        *

Three days ago my mom and her new husband had a baby. She and Richard thought that with the chaos of all of the visiting relatives, and the needs of the baby, my spending the summer with Frank might be best for everyone.

Everyone but me.

“What am I supposed to do with Frank all summer? What about my friends?” I asked, hoping Mom wouldn’t mention the fact that I spend most nights sitting alone on the roof, watching the lights of the city. Watching the horizon of planes waiting to land at LAX. Watching life happen to everyone but me.

“You can always help your father with his latest business venture,” Mom said. “That kind of experience will look good on a college application.”

It will have to look good. It will have to look magnificent to distract from the screaming baby that is my 2.2 GPA.

“And what is Frank up to nowadays?” I said.

Since their divorce my father has bounced around from one hair-brained scheme to the next, usually leaving behind a trail of failed businesses and outstanding debts.

Mom winced slightly like she does when trying to think. “Oh, now, what was it that he told me? Something about Brand Management and Public Relations.”

It turns out that Brand Management and Public Relations means Frank stands on Hollywood Boulevard dressed like Superman, and poses for pictures with tourists for tips.

So, yeah, this should be an invaluable experience.

*        *        *

Frank zips up his fanny pack and then stares at me as if I’ve just materialized there with my suitcase and backpack. As if he hasn’t noticed I’ve been standing beside him for the last thirty seconds, which is probably because he hasn’t.

“How was your trip?” he says.

“A bus and a train.”

Then Frank asks if I’ve eaten.

I tell him I could go for some lunch.

So we go to lunch.

We walk down to the Burrito Burro. Frank likes to stay on the boulevard when he’s working. He says a lot of the costumed characters do. He says the further you get away from Hollywood Boulevard, the faster the context and environment break down. Suddenly, you’re all alone. Suddenly, you’re just some weirdo in an ill-fitting Toys R’ Us costume.

“That’s how you get your ass kicked,” Frank says. “Even in L.A.”

The walls of the Burrito Burro are papered with pictures of their mascot. Benny. Benny the Burrito Burro. Alliteration abounds. Benny’s a donkey with a burrito for a body: four legs, a head, and a tail sticking out of a tortilla tube. I’m not sure of the advertising intent, but, to me, it suggests that their burritos are made with donkey meat.

I order two tacos.

“So,” Frank says in between bites of his burrito, “your mom kicked you out huh? It’s okay. I’ve been there.”

“It’s not like that,” I say. “Mom’s just got more than she can deal with right now.”

Frank waves this off. “Your mother likes to think of herself as particular,” he says. “I am the proof she is not. Besides, now you’re free to join the family business.”

“What?” I say.

“You’re going to work with me on the boulevard.”

“The hell I am.”

“You can’t just spend the summer sponging off me,” he says.

I think: You haven’t sent me so much as a birthday card in the last four years.

“I’ll get a job,” I say.

“Doing what?” Frank says. “Flipping burgers? Cutting some old lady’s lawn? What’s that gonna pay? Out here, I make upwards of two-hundred a day.”

“Really?” I say.

“Cash money. Tax free. We’ll work as a team,” Frank says. “It’ll be good for both of us. Groups always make more than solos.”

I stare at my tacos and think about it.

“Plus,” Frank says, and a smile breaks across his face, and I know exactly where this is going. “You’ve got costumed experience.”

What a jerk he is.

What a jerk he is to bring that up.

Last year I spent five soul-sucking weeks working for Luxury Souvenirs. I was hired to help promote their $5 Deal Daze. Basically the plastic crap that usually went for ten dollars was marked down to five. To promote this bonanza of savings they stuck me outside of the store dressed like Lincoln. They gave me a black wool suit and a top hat. They gave me a stick-on beard that itched my face hours after I took it off. They gave me a cardboard sign with a giant five-dollar bill on it.

They also gave me a series of savings-related Lincoln-isms to memorize and recite.

People would walk by, and I’d say Emancipate yourself from the slavery of overpriced keepsakes.

Or, sometimes, I’d remind them that while A house divided against itself cannot stand, a price tag divided is a heck of a deal.

Did this sad charade have any impact on the customers? Any increase in revenue?

I don’t know.

I do know that after eight hours in the sun, in that ridiculous outfit, with sweat pooled in my lower back, and my pride baked down to nothing, I’d fantasize about someone sneaking up behind me and shooting me in the head.

I think about Frank’s offer. The last thing I need is another job standing in public dressed like an idiot. Then I think about two hundred dollars a day for the rest of the summer. That kind of cash could really improve my social standing. I think about junior prom, and how the only girl that agreed to go with me was the Snake Mother. That’s not her real name. It’s Meg. Sophomore year Meg found an egg in the field behind the cafeteria. She decided to keep it warm in her ample cleavage. Meg’s sort of a big girl. Then one day, in the middle of Mr. Muzika’s Econ lecture, the egg hatched and a snake came out. I think about the prom, and how when Meg wasn’t looking, the guys from the lacrosse team would flick their tongues at me.


Never again.

I tell Frank I’ll do it when a black Spiderman walks in.

Frank waves him over to our table.

“This is my kid,” he says. “And this is Bugatti.”

“Like the car,” Bugatti says as we shake hands.

“Nice to meet you Bugatti.”

“Like the car,” he says again.

“Nice to meet you Bugatti like the car.”

Then Bugatti says check it out while swinging his leg wide and dropping his foot on the middle of our table.

I slide my tacos closer.

He’s wearing red and blue high-top sneakers with black webbing on them. “Specially made,” he says.

“Why not just wear the shoes that came with the costume?” I say.

“No good,” Bugatti says. “Spidey boots got no ankle support.”

Frank tells Bugatti about my decision to join him on the boulevard. He tells him that we’re trying to figure out my costume.

“What about Captain America?” I say.

“Bad idea,” Frank says. “There’s already too many. You can’t swing a dead cat down here without hitting a Captain America.”

Bugatti nods in agreement.

“Plus,” Frank says, “It’s bad business to combine the universes.”

“Pardon me,” I say.

Frank goes on to explain that Captain America is from the Marvel comic book universe, while Superman is from the DC universe.

“You don’t blend them,” he says. “It ruins the credibility.”

“That’s what bursts the bubble?” I say. “That the fake people aren’t from the same fake place? That, and not the fact that Mexican Spiderman is like fifty pounds overweight?”

Bugatti slams his fist on the table.

One of my tacos falls over.

“I hate that mutherfucker,” he says.

“It may be stupid,” Frank says, “but it matters to the people. That’s the business. If you and I are going to work together, you gotta be DC.”

“Okay, fine,” I say, leaning back in my chair. “I’ll be Batman.”

Bugatti shakes his head side to side and groans at me.

“No good,” Frank says. “It’s the cowl. You want to avoid cowls and masks like they’re an STD. Otherwise, come August, you’ll be drowning in your own sweat.”

I think back to the Lincoln beard.

“It’s true,” Bugatti says, holding up his Spiderman mask. “And I’ve got a high heat tolerance.”

In the end, somehow, we settle on Aquaman. Frank says that I’ve already got the blonde hair. He says that my lanky and somewhat girlish physique won’t be a problem, as Aquaman isn’t really known for his muscles.

That stings a bit.

Frank says that I’ll be the only one of the boulevard. He says that, combined with his Superman, we’ll be a moneymaking powerhouse.

I agree.

I agree and become Aquaman.

*        *        *

With Aquaman I have a few options, stylistically speaking. There’s the purple and blue camouflage outfit from the 1973 Aquaman Adventures television series starring Bruce Hortnutt. Unfortunately, that show was short lived. Turns out, Hortnutt was something of a bunny hoarder. His neighbors complained about the smell for months. By the time Animal Protective Services kicked down the door, there was over a thousand of them, bunnies reproducing as they do. They said that the backyard, which was nothing more than a fenced-in field, was filled with them. They said that is was pink eyes and floppy ears as far as you could see. That you couldn’t see a blade of grass. They said it was like some alternate universe where the Earth was made of bunnies.

When the news went public, Hortnutt killed himself.

So, I’m probably not going with that look.

There’s also the rough and tumble look from Aquaman’s edgy rebranding attempt in the mid-nineties. In this version, he has a golden harpoon attached to his left arm to replace the hand he lost in a piranha attack, which is pretty badass. But he’s also shirtless, and sports long hair, and a wild, unkempt beard. I’m not sure I can stand shirtless in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard. People would confuse me with an emaciated hobo. Plus, I promised myself I was finished with stick-on beards.

Ultimately, I decide to go with the classic look.

On the walk back from the Burrito Burro, Frank says he has some emerald tights and gloves from a brief stint as the Green Lantern. He says the black trunks will be easy to find. For Aquaman’s famous orange and gold-scaled shirt, Frank says he has an old wetsuit top I can use.

“It’s not gonna be perfect,” he says as we reach the metro station, “but you’ll still look better than half of these clowns. And you’ll have the advantage of standing beside me.”

Then he reaches into his fanny pack and pulls out some keys. He says his apartment is off Sunset, just a few block past Fairfax. He says he’ll see me later.

“Wait,” I say. “You’re not going to drive me?”


“That’s like five miles from here,” I say. “Why not?”

Frank sighs. Then he raises his palm, and makes a slow sweep of the boulevard, from the Baby Gap, all the way down to the Hollywood Museum of Squandered Innocence.

“I’m at work,” he says.

*        *        *

I decide to walk. I decide that my forgoing the bus, and lugging my belongings down Sunset Boulevard will somehow punish Frank. That he will see the error of his ways, and pull up alongside me, apologizing for being selfish, asking for forgiveness.

This is delusional. Frank has always only cared about himself.

For probably the last year of their marriage, Mom suspected he was cheating on her. Then, one day, her suspicions were confirmed when she found gum in his pubic hair. I heard them fighting through my bedroom wall. I heard Frank’s futile attempts to convince Mom the gum was his. How it must have fallen out of his mouth and become stuck there.

“Like, maybe, when I was in the shower,” he said.

There was more, but I piled the pillows over my head. I didn’t want to hear. The next morning Frank was gone. Mom said he’d be away for a while, out of town on business. She said it to spare me the pain I guess. I guess she assumed I hadn’t heard them fighting. As with Frank, as with a lot of things in life, Mom gave the thickness of our walls more credit than they deserved.

A few days later I saw Frank on the high school baseball field. He was drunk, and making languid loops in the outfield on a girl’s bicycle. He’d been sleeping in the dugout.

*        *        *

Frank’s apartment building is one of those white stucco jobs that crumble into pebbles and powder when touched. He’s got one of the ground floor apartments, the one closest to the road. Inside it’s just one giant room. Fantastic. There’s a weight bench in one corner with a pair of underwear hanging off one end of the barbell. Dumbbells of various sizes and weight litter the floor. I watch my step. I head to the galley kitchen hoping for a glass of water. Tubs of protein powder and beer cans crowd the counter. Frank has exactly one glass, and there’s a cigarette butt floating in it, and lipstick on the rim. I drop my pack and flop down on Frank’s bed. On his nightstand are a copy of The Entrepreneur in You, and a framed photo of Christopher Reeve, the actor who starred in the original Superman movies. There’s not a picture of me in sight.

I think about calling my mom. I think that if I explained the situation, Frank’s ridiculous “job,” and the squalor of his apartment, then she’d let me come home. Then I think she’d just as likely tell me to give it some time. To give Frank a chance, and make the best of it.

I close my eyes.

The drone of the traffic is familiar and soothing.

I fall asleep.

*        *        *

I wake up to Frank kicking my foot. He’s shirtless, and wearing clear, plastic gloves that are streaked with black.

“Are you dyeing your hair?” I say.

“You bet your ass I am.”


“Because you can’t have a graying Superman.”


“For the same reason Jesus died in his prime. Nobody wants to see their heroes age. It reminds them of their own mortality.”

Then he waves a gloved hand at his bed and me.

“I hope you enjoyed your little nap,” he says. “But don’t make a habit of it.”

He points to a sagging, purple loveseat whose integrity looks suspect.

“That’s you,” he says.

“Excuse me?”

“It doesn’t look like much, but it’s pretty comfortable,” Frank says. “And it pulls out, which makes it smarter than me.” Then Frank lets out a single burst of laughter and kicks me again. Then he peels the gloves off with his teeth, and picks up a white, linen shirt from the floor. On the back of the shirt is a hula dancer with a pair of monstrous breasts crammed into a coconut bra. She has a grass skirt made of green fringe that sways back and forth when Frank moves. She is naked underneath, and rendered anatomically correct. The level of detail is alarming.

“This stuff needs fifteen minutes to set in and do its thing,” Frank says walking to the fridge. He tosses me a beer. “While we wait, lets go on the roof,” he says. “It’s a good place to drink, but then again most places are.”

So we go to the roof.

We make our way across the tarpaper, and past all of the satellite TV dishes, to the far corner. From here I can see the traffic crawling along Sunset Boulevard. I can see how the brake lights waiver in the exhaust.

Across the street, and above the Chinese Food & Donuts place, is a billboard. They are, apparently, remaking Citizen Kane. The billboard features the bloated face of the Scottish actor who will play Kane. He used to be leaner, and more of a star, but lately he’s only made headlines for throwing people through barroom windows, and becoming a casual anti-Semite.

Frank sees the billboard too. “Can you believe they’re rehashing that garbage?” he says.

No, I think, I can’t. Who needs another movie about someone so desperate to relive his childhood? Another movie that glorifies that time, instead of depicting it for the parade of regret and loneliness that it really is.

It’s surprising to find myself agreeing with Frank. Surprising, but nice.

“I mean,” he says, “when is Hollywood gonna stop pushing their homoerotic agenda?”

“Wait. What?”

“That movie’s about gay sex.”

“How do you figure?”

Frank holds up his hand. He curls his index finger along his thumb.

“I don’t know what that means,” I say.

“It’s an asshole.”


“Rosebud is slang for asshole,” Frank says. “The guy spends the entire movie looking for his rosebud. He’s trying to relive his first homosexual experience. The movie’s about gay sex.”

“It’s not,” I say. “It’s about a sad, rich guy pining for his childhood. Rosebud was the name of his sled.”

“Believe what you want, but you’re wrong. Plus,” Frank says, “Charles Foster Kane? That’s one of the biggest puffer names I’ve ever heard.”

Then Frank belches and turns his back on me, concluding, sadly, one of our better father-son talks.

Some nights I lie awake, thinking about how half of my genetic makeup comes from this guy. Then I think about the traits I got from Mom, and I wonder if they’re good enough, strong enough, to counteract Frank’s contaminated contribution.

A gust of wind comes in from the west. It blows the hula dancer’s skirt to the side, and I try not to stare.

I try, and I fail.

The next morning we go to work.

*        *        *

Frank insists on being on the boulevard no later than 9 a.m. Any later than that he says, and all of the quality real estate is taken. So, at 8:58, we’re standing at the base of the stairs leading to the Hollywood & Highland Shopping Center.

“This way,” he tells me, “we’ll get all of the shopper traffic, and all of the boulevard traffic.”

It sounds smart. It sounds smart until the first hour ticks by without anyone wanting a picture. No one wants a picture the next hour, or the hour after that. The only highlight of the morning is when a woman walks by with a rattlesnake tattooed on her legs. She has the snake’s head on her left calf, and its body going up the back of her leg until it disappears beneath her black, leather skirt. The rest of its body continues down her other thigh, with the rattler on her right calf.

“Will you look at that,” Frank says. “I’ll bet the rest of that thing,” and then he pauses, sticks up a finger, and makes little circles, “is coiled on her ass. Just imagine that.”

Then Frank digs a small notebook out of his fanny pack and writes something down.

“What are you doing?” I say.

“I don’t want to lose that,” he says. “That’s some beautiful imagery. It’ll work great in one of my poems.”

“Your what?”

“My poems. My poetry. I write poems from time to time” he says.

This is a curious development. Frank never struck me as the literary type. He used to read Sports Illustrated on the toilet, occupying our sole bathroom for up to an hour, but that was about it.

“I’d like to read something sometime,” I say.

“Yeah, maybe,” he says.

Then we go to lunch.

*        *        *

When we get back, the spot by the stairs is filled with sunshine, so we move down the boulevard and stand in the shade of the double-decker Star Sightings tour bus.

No one wants a picture.

“Lets try splitting up,” Frank says. “If one of us gets a nibble, he’ll wave over the other one. We’ll divide and conquer.”

“Frank,” I say, “this is stupid. I feel stupid.”

“Hey, if it was easy, anyone would be doing it. You gotta get out there and generate interest. Try using that thing you made.”

The night before Frank told me I should add a prop to my costume. Something for tourists to pose with. Something to help draw them it.

“Zorro’s got a sword,” he said. “Thor has a hammer. All the lesser heroes do it.”

I didn’t appreciate being referred to as a “lesser hero,” but then I pictured myself in green tights, and an orange, neoprene shirt, and I figured I could use all of the help I could get. I spent the night taping paper towel tubes together, and covering the whole thing in aluminum foil.

It’s supposed to be a trident.

It looks like a big, limp fork.

Another hour goes by. No one wants my picture. Then I see Frank pose with a young couple. A few minutes later, he takes a picture with a group of girls in matching softball uniforms.

I storm down the street.

“What the hell?”

“What?” Frank says.

“You said you’d wave me over.”

“I tried,” Frank says. “They didn’t want their picture with you. They thought you were some kind of gay farmer.”

I feel my face bloom hot with embarrassment.

I toss the trident.

I spend the rest of the afternoon across the street, sulking inside The Dripping Bean, and nursing a black coffee.

Around three, Frank comes by. He says he’s going to a Happy Hour with Bugatti, and two guys who dress as Iron Man. I ask if I can come.

“You can if you’ve got any money,” he says.

I go back to Frank’s. This time I take the bus.

*        *        *

By ten o’clock Frank hasn’t come home, so I steal two of his beers and go to the roof. There are never many visible stars in LA’s night sky, but down here, it’s even worse. The streetlights, and spotlights, and digital billboards, and winking neon are too much for even the brightest of celestial bodies. The light pollution reflects off of the smog, making a gray blanket of the sky. It’s easy to imagine that this is all there is. That nothing larger, or grander exists beyond this tiny bubble. It’s easy to imagine that we are all alone.

I walk to the edge of the roof. I have never looked over a roof I haven’t imagined myself jumping off of. Sometimes I imagine the things that would cycle through my head on the way down. If there would be some clarity before I hit, and if it’s better to experience that, and then have it immediately taken away, than to never have any at all.

On the other side of Frank’s building is an alley. The far wall is lined with Dumpsters, and on every single one is a sign that reads: NO BABIES.

*        *        *

The next morning Frank wakes me with a coffee and a blueberry scone. I don’t know if this is his way for apologizing for yesterday, but I’ll take it.

When we get to the boulevard he hands me a folded piece of paper. I open it, and see that it is titled: The Sex With You.

“What the hell is this? I say.

“My words,” he says.


“You said you wanted to read some of my stuff,” Frank says. “This is one of my poems.”

“Oh, okay,” I say. “Sure.”

I read Frank’s poem.

The sex with you

It has been terrible for years.

Your vagina has become

nothing more than a


A grave

where I bury

the best part

of myself.

“That’s something,” I say, handing that paper back to Frank. “Very evocative.”

“I wrote it about your mother,” he says.

“Jesus Christ! What the hell is your problem, Frank?”

“You know,” he says, “you should try calling me Dad.”

“Please,” I say. “I’d sooner call you Superman.”

*        *        *

The rest of the morning is awkward. A few people stop for pictures, but they only want Frank. Sometimes I get thrown in at the end, as an afterthought, but mostly I just work the camera.

Then an Asian grandmother, with a group of kids in tow, gets my hopes up. As her grandchildren gather around Frank, flexing their little muscles, she pushes her camera into my chest.

“Pictureman,” she says, smiling.

“No,” I say. “Aquaman. I’m a hero too.”

“Pictureman,” she says again, frowning, and pressing the camera harder. Then she joins her grandchildren, everyone posing and smiling for a picture.

So I take their picture.

She hands Frank some money before they continue down the boulevard.

“Don’t worry Pictureman,” Frank says. “You’ll get your cut.”

“This is stupid,” I say. “It isn’t working. I can’t do this.”

“Sure you can,” Frank says, putting a hand on my shoulder.”

“No,” I say, sliding away from his touch. “I can’t. I’m not like you.” And as the words leave my mouth, I realize that it’s true, I’m not like Frank, and that, somehow, is part of my problem.

“So, what then?” Frank says. “You want to quit? You want to go home?”

“Yes!” That’s exactly what I want. Maybe if I possessed Frank’s charm, or strength, or whatever it is that gives him a natural ease with people, then things would be different. But I don’t. Maybe if I did, I wouldn’t be cast out of my own home, supplanted by a baby my mother barely knows. Maybe I wouldn’t be equally embarrassed and grateful to have the Snake Mother as a prom date. Maybe I wouldn’t spend every night on the roof, alone, wishing for things to be different, and having no idea what that difference looks like.

Frank just stands there, and furrows his brow. It makes his Superman curl, the one he molds each morning, then lacquers with hairspray, move ever so slightly.

“What did you say?”

“I said I’ll stay,” I mumble, not meeting his eyes. Then I shuffle to the center of the boulevard, positioning myself between the streams of tourist traffic. “I’ll try.”

And I do. I make eye contact. I wave. I stretch my face into an unnatural smile, and project a confidence I do not own. I make a true, and unguarded attempt to engage.

No one wants my picture.


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