I woke up again this morning with a story. I don’t know where it came from, but I’d like to think it has a certain Bradbury feel to it.
“He’s not here.”
“He’s not here.”
The man at the podium looked over his glasses at us standing in the enormous hall.
“Perhaps it would save time if you tell me who you are, and I’ll mark you off.”
We gave him our names, and he made elaborate checkmarks on his roster. Me, and my buddy Lawrence. Just us.
“I’m sure you know the rules, boys?”
We did. We had read over them a million times, looking for a loophole.
“Must be present to win.”
Here we were. The only ones here, even though the hall had been rented for a much larger turn out. Perhaps the fans just weren’t as plentiful as they expected.
“Must be of legal driving age.”
That was the sticker. Lawrence was thirteen. I was twelve. Twelve and three quarters.
“And at least 2000 people must enter before anybody can win.”
The defeat in his eyes was big enough to fill the room.
“253. That’s how many entered. And you’re the only ones here.”
“But I paid my dollar. I have the receipt right here! What about my dollar?”
He looked around at the room, at the custodial staff already looking at their watches.
“And,” he continued, as though I hadn’t said anything, “48 nasty letters. Most of them claiming that it wasn’t the actual car.”
That hadn’t even occured to me. The poster said the raffle was for the car. The actual car. Would they dare lie about a thing like that?
He stepped out from behind the podium, suddenly much smaller than he had been behind its protection, and sadly came towards us.
“Well, boys, show’s over. Go on home.”
I was thunderstruck. We paid our dollar. We showed up, skipping school, and risking the wrath of Mrs. Bacurdi to be here. And now we just had to leave?
“But, sir, I paid my dollar.” It was all I could think to say.
“You’re big fans, huh?” The light came back into his eyes, just a little.
“The biggest. We have the posters and the action figures and the ticket stubs and …”
“Then no doubt you know that the actor who played him …”
We both muttered his name.
“… lives a few streets over in …”
We both muttered his address. We had seen him once in the grocery store, looking rather less dapper, and somewhat older, than he had on the silver screen, but it was still him. We tailed him around the store, but didn’t have the courage to approach him.
“… and has the actual car sitting in his garage.”
We gaped. No, we didn’t know that. The tabloid newspapers didn’t know that. The Complete Compendium Of Movie Lore didn’t know that. It was ‘missing, presumed stolen or destroyed on the set.’ Was it possible that THE car was 7 blocks away from where I slept each night? Could it be true?
“… and needs to sell it to cover some of those debts,” he was saying, “and hoped that a raffle might …”
We stared at him, not really understanding anything past the implication that Our Hero had Fallen On Hard Times. This, too, seemed unthinkable.
He stopped talking, and looked at us for a long time. Looked at our dreams and hopes dying, and a new steel came into his eyes.
“Hold on a moment. I’ll see what I can do.”
He went over to the phone in the corner, put in a dime, and made a call. We didn’t hear all of it, but it sounded like he was talking to a friend, not to a hero. He called him Sam. We heard, “No, I’m afraid not, Sam. There’s nothing I can do. But maybe there’s something you can do.”
After a long time he came back over to us and led us out into the alley behind the hall. The custodians had started putting away the chairs before the doors closed behind us.
We felt it before we heard it, and we heard it long before we saw it. Then, there it was.
Exactly as it has been on the screen, all the way to the cheesy cardboard covers on the wheels and the hand-painted lightning bolt on the hood. It looked every bit as real in color as it had in black and white.
And at the wheel, Our Hero, complete with his mask and costume, still almost fitting.
And he was stopping right in front of us.
He said the line from the movie, even as we were mouthing it.
“Need a ride, gentlemen?”
He didn’t have to ask twice.
We rode around town for two hours. People stared and pointed. We sat in the front seat. I sat next to him, and every now and then he’d look over at us and smile that huge smile that you’ve seen on the screen. Several times, the garish colors seemed to fade to the more correct greys and blacks, and we were chasing Moke McBaddun down Main Street, guns blazing, and then the colors would come back, and it was just South Elm. But we were there in the cockpit with him, either way.
Then it was over, and we were shaking hands, and mumbling something, and he gave us those cardboard wheel covers. Turns out they were just on one side. He took them off and signed them. Our Hero. He wrote his “real” name on it too.
The next week, a truck drove past our house with an old car on the back, and the newspaper had something about an old actor losing everything and selling his memorabilia to pay off years of debt. And now he lives on our side of the tracks. We see him in the grocery store now and then, but we don’t say anything to him. He lifts his hat to our mothers, and winks at us, to remind us that we have a secret.