The 1st Day
On the first day of his new life in the new neighborhood, Mister Dylan heard about the Titanium Man. The Titanium Man was built entirely of metal, every part of his body! No bones, no liver, no kidneys! But he was not a robot. His was not a voice made up of controlled beeps and monographic measurements. He spoke with lucidity, like any other person would, and had hair and teeth.
When the Titanium Man goes to the window, he raises the sash effortlessly and looks out over the city. He only does this at night, when people aren’t watching. If they are, he stays out of any light. Otherwise there’d be a big outcry of, “There’s the Titanium Man!” from down below on the streets. And the grown-ups don’t want to wake the children up.
The 2nd Day
At ten years old, Mister Dylan had glasses that had been his father’s as a child but hollowed out and fitted with stronger frames. They magnified everything about his eyes, making them look dark and ringed. The one for his right eye was thicker since he had taken it out with a glue gun by mistake two years earlier. Mister Dylan could be likened to a pear in his many black spots, some on the whites of his eyes, some on his arms and knees, because he had come to fruition several years too early. His head was itself the bulbous twig of his body, more of an ellipsoid than a sphere.
Mister Dylan kept Barbies in his basement under a white cloth, a frenetic pleasure. His father was president of the local chapter of the N.R.A. and Mister Dylan would often have to play downstairs while they held their meetings, because during this busy time of aluminum and beer and loud noises, no one cared to check after him. To keep himself from being discovered, he hid behind an enormous broken chandelier that his mother had once loved, checking every so often to see if he was being watched through the oblong droplets of glass. His father was a tall, skinny man whose face moved like a wooden puppet’s. He always rested his beer on his right knee and could not gain any weight no matter how sedentary his lifestyle and how much deep-fried food he took in. His was an incidental healthiness.
Mister Dylan did not have Barbies in his room, where he invited Tom Peel. Tom Peel was known for his ability to peel little kids like skinned fruit. He was also somehow connected to everything adults weren’t.
“You want to see the Titanium Man?” Tom Peel asked.
“What’s in it for me?”
“I have some candy left over from last Halloween.”
Tom Peel was sold. He snorted so every pore on his face widened. He was really very ugly.
“It’s in the closet.”
Tom Peel went into the closet and rooted around until he produced a bag with a smiling pumpkin on it.
“It’ll take a few years if you want to see him,” he said.
“A few years?”
“Yeah. You have to pass some tests. To see if you’re strong enough. Then you have to get a passport. It’ll cost about five hundred dollars.”
Mister Dylan said nothing.
“I’d like to see him before the sixth grade.”
“Pfft. That’s impossible.”
“Can’t you arrange something?”
Tom Peel froze, Dots encircling his mouth. He stared out the window. ”You trying to violate my trust?”
Mister Dylan realized that Tom Peel had not been following their conversation as closely as he had. He was displacing what he’d heard in Mission Impossible and Lethal Weapon into reality, into Mister Dylan’s room.
“I don’t think you’re ready for something like this.”
“I can handle it.”
“You’re gonna need more credentials.” He chewed on a Dot, which Mister Dylan imagined was his attempt at a cigarette. “Fancy stuff.”
“Fancy stuff…something cerebral. Like Ph.D.s?”
“What the hell—?” His concentration broken, Tom Peel spit the candy onto the floor. “You new kids are all such losers. Call me when you’re ready to be a man.”
He kicked the door on his way out.
>The 3rd Day
At dinner, Dylan’s mother smokes, taking the taste from his food.
“Can you put it out?”
“No, honey. This is what Mommy does at dinner every night.”
She is taugt and auburn, with rosy flushes in her cheeks. If her foreface hadn’t sagged into jowls, she might have been beautiful.
“How was school?” his father asks, and Dylan crosses his feet and grins.
“I didn’t go to school.”
“Well now, that’s just ludicrous. Every kid goes to school. I learned plenty of good stuff in the fifth grade.”
“Honey,” says his mother, but she is chewing and keeps herself from finishing her sentence. She swallows audibly. ”I think you should try and be nicer to the other boys in your new school.”
It’s a cesspool. Even the paint on the walls smells of idiocy, and it’s dry.
His father cleans his plate with a single scoop of his fork. Somehow, the corn and potatoes have congealed into a magnificent shape—similar to the state of Arkansas—easy for him to pick up.
“May I be excused?”
Mister Dylan fiddles with the pink dovetailed slab that will help build Barbie’s soon-to-be workplace. She is going to stand behind the counter and serve bubblegum wads the size of her fists. They are different flavors and can be made into a myriad of shapes through a series of cheap molds, none of which Mister Dylan owns.
He drags Barbie seductively around the kitchen corners of her town home, making her leap out in her bathrobe at nothing, anticipating an as-of-yet intangible romance. She makes soup for herself and sits, her hard breasts bulging sagaciously beneath the terrycloth, waiting with the supple air of an expectant female. It calls to mind for Mister Dylan the mournful words of the late poet Pablo Neruda: “I see a barber shop and I want to cry/ How I am sick of being a man!”
The 4th Day
Mister Dylan met Cole on the playground. Cole had a broken arm, perhaps the one thing about him that made him of any interest to anyone. The cast went half the way up his arm, past his elbow, bending in an uncomfortable curve.
Cole was lucky enough to live in the Titanium Man’s apartment complex. At night, he could hear him moving from his bed and tripping over chair legs. He never cursed because he didn’t have any feeling in his toes. He ate foil for a midnight snack, and he was always hungry when there was a big moon out.
“Have you ever seen him?” Mister Dylan asked.
“Tons of times. But I only see parts of him, not the whole thing. Like, y’know, I catch the back of his leg going in to the el’vator.”
“So you’ve never seen his face?”
“Nope. You’re the new kid?”
“You’re kind of stupid-looking.”
Mister Dylan tried to avoid the special classes populated by the children whose test scores were stamped in gold and framed in the principal’s office. They worked in desks, which grew into rows, and rows into rooms and rooms in to hallways and hallways into colonies, all scribing the great manifestos of their fact-filled lives. Mister Dylan knew a few things about colloidal suspension and the various processes needed to produce carbohydrates in plants, but he let this information slip easily away from him, as a rock from his palm, knowing he’d never use it.
Instead, he was placed in classes with Tom Peel. To pretend he was awake he’d close his left eye and doze off, one eye settled, completely unseeing, on the rest of the class. When he looked with both eyes he was able to put into focus the miserable construction-paper attempts at Thanksgiving settlers and Indians by his classmates. When he drew his Native American he drew a fully clothed fat man in aviator glasses, smoking a cigar and smiling. He had long pigtails and a button-down polo shirt and his lips were creased heavily from living on a farm in the wintertime. His name was Forgotten Thunderbird, and he was sent in a manila envelope to the principal’s office.
There were cracks in the classroom wall, and through midday hallucinations Mister Dylan thought he could hear Cole speaking through them. ”The Titanium Man is the last thing I think about when I go to sleep and the first thing I think about when I get up in the morning. He never leaves his apartment because people will make fun of him. But I wouldn’t. I’d just try to take him apart.”
The 5th Day
On a Saturday morning, Mister Dylan watches the sweaty backside of his mother struggle in the preparation of pancakes. Outside, on the windows, there are traces of pigmented fingerprints from tag games whose chaser didn’t stop at the regulated boundaries. Maybe their house was Second Safety. Mister Dylan had experienced such a thing, when one kid was so determined to hunt him down and tag him that the chase turned into a carnivorous, unsmiling pursuit, often ending in someone getting slammed against a car.
“Can I go outside?”
“What? Why not?”
She turned around and set the pancakes down on a plate in front of him. By the look in her eyes he could tell she didn’t have a reason.
“Your father and I have a surprise.”
Outside, Tom Peel’s magnificently large body worked itself over the hood of an abandoned bus. There was a volcanic noise as he landed on the other side of the machine, on the pavement.
His father came in the room carrying a little suitcase-shaped bag wrapped in brown paper.
“Do you know what this is, Dylan?”
He pulled the string off and the paper fell away. There was a box.
“Take one guess.”
“A model car?”
His father’s face dropped. He looked to his wife and she smiled wanly and shook her head. He lifted the lid from the box.
“This is an old Ford. Very old, from before you were born. I just finished painting it.” There was a note of melancholy in his voice. ”It’s nice, huh?”
Mister Dylan pressed his finger to the hood. He could see where his father had skimped on brushstrokes. There were white stripes.
He pressed harder. His finger went through the roof.
The sun seemed to peak in the sky. The pancakes hissed. His mother wiped her wet fingers on the side of her head.
“What did you just do?”
“I went through the roof. I didn’t realize it was just…”
“I’ll show you through the roof, you little punk!”
His father clenched his fingers, looking on the verge of violence. Then he pointed to The Room.
“This was for my meeting tonight, Dylan!”
His mother—how she could love him at the moment Mister Dylan never figured—pressed herself close to her husband’s shoulder and nodded at her son, dismissing him to the Upstairs.
The 6th Day
Mister Dylan, downgraded to Dylan, did not leave his room until noon on Sunday. From the time he woke up until he couldn’t take being hungry anymore, he sat in front of his mirror and gave himself an extensive haircut, resulting in the loss of almost all his hair. The window opposite his door looked out onto a wall, and the wall was covered in ivy. He opened it and pushed himself forward, his feet against his bed, until he touched the wall with his denuded scalp. His father came into his room, rolling a cigarette between his palms.
“I want you to come downstairs now, Dylan.”
Dylan lunged at his shelf and threw the Old Testament at his father’s head. His father ducked to one side and smiled. The Old Testament hit the wall painfully, so the sound rattled in Dylan’s ears.
“I’m sure happy I don’t keep the rifle with me on Sunday mornings. Otherwise you’d be riddled by now.”
He meant it as a joke, of course, but Dylan clutched his chest as his father closed the door. He felt the pulses in his hand and his heart beating faster, faster.
The 7th Day
The Titanium Man leans out of his open window onto the midnight city. He moves to get up and there is a rough squeaking noise in his elbows. He has been meaning to oil them, but it’s the sort of thing that takes time to do; first he’s got to scrub his joints and then he has to loosen his bolts and then he can oil any sockets worthy of oiling. It’s not worth it, not right now. He flashes his eyes, which are blue-gray screens, over Grant Park. He can’t see anyone moving down there. He dips his finger into the concrete sill as easily as one might dip into a cake’s frosting. He realizes just then that he needs more ice in his refrigerator, by now the pail should be nearly empty. He checks the fridge. He’s right. He’s completely out.
At the ice machine the Titanium Man detects movement. He wraps his bathrobe tighter around his waist. A child, one arm fully casted, is jamming and re-jamming a dollar into the snack machine. He kicks it, screaming at the juice button.
The Titanium Man stands astride of the machine and lifts it slightly off the ground. He lets it drop and the child’s juice appears.
“Cranberry. Is this what you wanted?”
The boy shakes his head.
“It’s got enough sugar in it for you.”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“That’s all right. Very few people can sleep. When does the cast come off?”
“You guys and your bones.” He fills his ice bucket and chuckles brightly.
The 8th Day
“I saw the Titanium Man last night. In real life,” Cole says to Mr. Dylan.
“Are you kidding?”
“Nope. He was six feet tall an’ metal, an’ he was wearing a bathrobe. He talked to me.”
“What was he doing?”
“Who knows? Maybe t’freeze every radiator in the world. Or maybe he’s gonna spread it on the ground and make winter with his superpowers.”
“He’s going to use it to freeze the school,” the girl in front of Mister Dylan whispers.
“No, stupid!” another boy says, and his voice is like a hoarse catcall. “He’s gonna choose one kid an’ freeze ’em, and take them back to his house to study.”
Everyone leans close in to him, his story the most compelling.
“He’s going to unfreeze them and thaw them and take off their arms and legs and sew on a frog’s head and arms and legs.”
“Woah. A frog’s head?”
“How do you know who he’s gonna choose?” asked Mister Dylan.
“Oh, you know it,” the kid’s braces were shining with cunning. “You have a dream about it, and when you wake up, you’re in his hotel apartment and your head’s on the other side of the room.”
The little girl shuddered and began crying. On the forestage of his mind, Mister Dylan could see himself being cut apart. His limbs were distributed liberally to guests at a dinner table, and at the table’s head was the Titanium Man.
The 10th Day
Mister Dylan assembled a plastic family: Barbie, Ken, their houseguest Kiko. He had been rehearsing his speech for three days. They looked expectant for his delivery, especially Barbie, her arms extended in a permanent embrace. Mister Dylan smiled kindly at the three of them, children of his imagination.
“I don’t want to search for some purpose to playing. The lives I have made for you are as realistic as they will ever be. We exist, all of us, in solipsistic chasms of emptiness—each of us feels his or hers more poignantly than they do others’. You’ve had to add on to your basement because of flooding, pay for collagen injections, loosen your belts around Christmas time. And while this is a dismal request, I want you all to go on living my life after I am done living it. I haven’t grown or changed in two years and am unlikely to grow five inches in a night; you, with your unchanging faces and toned bodies, you can safely occupy my space, if only for the sake of living, as your presence is felt as deeply by anyone here as mine ever was.”
Mister Dylan wiped some drool that had leaked down onto the side of his chin and watched the numbers flip on his clock. Steadily, 8:43 gave way to 9:12, and only the nine and the one changed while the two was somehow wrung from the three. He pulled apart his blinds and looked down Milwaukee, toward where the Titanium Man’s apartment building was. As the night came on, he could feel a cloud forming around his vision, but fought childhood to keep it up.
The Titanium Man lived three blocks away. Walking there was almost like floating. He went in through the building’s lobby and crossed over to the staircase. There was no one else on the bottom floor. He learned from a map that there were seven floors, and the Titanium Man’s apartment was on the third. 2054 was the first number off the stairs.
“Hello?” he called, too loudly, and there was only a quiet humming. Then there were soft red lights from under the door crack, the metallic unlinking of chains. The knob turned, and Mister Dylan was overcome with a giddy, intoxicating sensation—so much that he couldn’t tell if he was actually alive or had ever been—and he shut his eyes tight to keep himself from waking up.