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From Become Your Own Superhero: Intrepid Exceptions to Modern Fiction

Thursday 2/16/23

Acorn Man was routinely tinged with disappointment. He was blue. Not actual blue. Blue in the metaphorical sense. He wanted people to rise up, be the best version of themselves, and to help other people the way that Acorn Man sought to help them.

Ideally, Acorn Man would be made redundant. He could cease his visitations. Then he would plant himself in the ground, and he’d become a great tree. A home for birds, a haven for lovers on hot days, in the much-needed shade. It wasn’t death, it wasn’t sacrifice; it was ultimate growth. That was the goal, anyway. There wasn’t really any danger of it happening, if danger was the right word.

The man went on to have a financial crisis, his skills were now outmoded, he’d always been cavalier and outspoken and didn’t care whom he offended, and he’d had to get a roommate who was half his age (roommates were hard to locate at the time, we were told in the story) and move into someone else’s two-bedroom apartment after having taken much of his life—including his independence—for granted. There was nowhere else for him to go.

Now he had to plan his trips to the refrigerator based upon whether he thought the roommate would be in the common room watching TV, which would necessitate a conversation that the man didn’t want to have and which was never brief, despite the man trying to say as little as possible so that he could be on his way again and alone with his shame and grief.

The unavoidable conversation would probably involve politics with the much younger roommate automatically assuming that the man was on his side no matter the issue, or it might be about some show on a streaming service that the man in his fifties hadn’t heard of and wouldn’t have been interested in if he had.

He preferred old movies in black and white, the way that morality itself really is, which was a line the man liked to use back when he had people with whom to speak.

“Beige isn’t my thing,” he’d been known to remark, a lick of triumph in his voice, “give me black and give me white.”

But those days were gone.

There was also the ignominy of the refrigerator itself, once opened. Every object in the Acorn Man comic was either fundamentally circular or rectangular. It went round and round, or it went straight.

Turned on its side, the refrigerator would have looked like a long coffin with two compartments—a two-for-one-burial special if the dead were scrunched up the right way—and a couple of handles for toting and opening. The fridge was meant to signify the carrying of the carcass through a lonely life, and a thematic reminder—suggested visually—that death can follow and define us, even when we’re technically alive.

This made the refrigerator look most foreboding, I think. Totemic. The roommate labeled his choicest foodstuffs—such as leftover pizza from a nearby restaurant—with his name on a sticky note, an act which suggested to the man that the roommate thought it possible he was too stupid to recognize what was his and what wasn’t, or else that he might be a thief or just couldn’t help himself. Indeed, he had put on weight. Food was a lone comfort.

Life was a process of emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, visual—thanks to the refrigerator notes—degradation for the man. It went so slowly—the painful part—but the concept of time and how much time remained—which was the fading hope part—was always on the man’s mind. The idea of what was left to him. When did too late become officially too late?

Would he ever live somewhere else that was resplendent, with a sprawling, well-kept front lawn of which he could be proud? Would there be enough years left? Would he use watering cans and learn to smile at children and meet a woman who didn’t look like she’d just been exhumed from the ground? It didn’t have to be a fresh young thing. That ship had probably sailed and left its next port-of-call already, too. But a person with some life in her—and some life in the features of her face, her smile—would be nice.

The very idea that someone he might like to look at would be by his side in the future seemed as unlikely to the man as the possibility of him setting foot on another planet. And even if the people who used to like him or tolerated him were amenable to visiting him, he’d be far too embarrassed for them to see what his life and living situation had come to.

On the nights when the roommate had a date over, the man had given up risking the trip to the refrigerator. He stashed boxes of Wheat Thins and Saltines under his bed with his books because there wasn’t any room for shelves for the books and he’d never been handy even if there were.

He crouched on all fours trying to find a particular title, and his back ached enough so that he’d give up the job and take whatever was nearest to hand. He read the same three books a lot. One was a science fiction novel from the 1950s, which had dire warnings for humankind in the future that had largely come true, especially for men like the man. That book just about made him sick, but he also wished there’d been a sequel so he wouldn’t have to look at the book he did have with a desire to ask it, “What else do you know?”

Then again, he would have been scared to read the sequel if it had existed.

The supplementary idea of being introduced to the woman who was the roommate’s date—who was like the kind of woman the man would like to meet and have be interested in him—was too much. The man knew that when he left the common room she’d make faces and ask questions that spoke to how strange it was to have a roommate the man’s age for someone who was the roommate’s age.

She might say, “There goes granddad,” laughing, but only so as not to appear snide despite how she really felt. What she really wanted to say was, “God, this is so creepy. Why do you live with a weird old man?”

And though the man didn’t like the roommate, he also didn’t like anything, which had the paradoxical knack for making everything in his life the same neutral color of beige, emotionally-speaking. But he still didn’t want to hear his roommate agreeing with the comely woman who was on the date for that evening.

For a while, before he put a stop to any of these appearances, the man had thought he possessed remarkable hearing at the level of a forest hare on high-alert, because he could always make out what these women were saying about him after he left the room and went back to his.

But then he realized that when people think they’re whispering they’re never as quiet as they believe. He had even stuck his fingers in his ears until he was reasonably certain they’d stopped talking and were invested again in their program. It felt pretty bad when he was doing the ear-sticking, thinking he’d wait another thirty seconds with his fingers still inserted, just in case. Those were some of the lowest moments and they caused him to weep, digits left in place. He cried for himself, which also made him feel like he was stupid, worthless, childish, pathetic.

There were many nights when the man didn’t eat at all. He knew facts—because he’d looked into the matter—about how long a person could go without eating before they died.

The answer was depressing to him. He’d been hoping to read, “Three days” and it wasn’t close to three days. That the answer was depressing was itself depressing in an even bigger way. A much bigger way. Specifically, that this had become the whole manner and style of the man’s thinking. Or that the style had been there all along, buried beneath the surface, and now had merely broken through the ground officially and was thus plainly visible. Maybe he should have listened to that stupid acorn and not chucked him into the pond.

And it was at that moment that Acorn Man came to the man once again, or rejoined him, to be precise.

It’s worth noting again that this was before I softened the character of Acorn Man and chipped away some of his own bitterness. In later versions of the Acorn Man comic, Acorn Man didn’t reappear to gloat, but solely to try and help the person—again—who was in the bad spot to find a solution. They’d never get what they really wanted, but they could perhaps be in a slightly, or even markedly (though this was rare), better place. Acorn Man shouldered a lot of gruff, just so he could help people that way. And the thanks he got? Trust me, it wasn’t a lot, but that’s not why he did it.

But my first version of Acorn Man wasn’t above kicking people when they were down because, after all, they’d rejected him earlier, and it was this version of Acorn Man who came to the man in his room which was significantly smaller than his roommate’s room. The man knew this all too well because he was in the habit of entering and checking his housemate’s room when he was home all alone, which was often, as if he hoped to find that the roommate’s room had lessened in size since the day before and now wasn’t that much bigger than his.

Acorn Man appeared on the window sill—there was just the one window, facing an alley—with his Dorito-inspired triangular orange cape billowing behind him. I made lots of motion lines, as these were easy to do, despite there being no wind nor a fan. Acorn Man’s cape forever billowed. His little five-pronged hands were on his hips, his acorn chest puffed out, but that was also the reality of one who is shaped like an acorn.

“Told you,” Acorn Man crowed. “Now look where you are, and where you shall be.”

The second clause was admittedly a continuity error, because it was only Acorn Man who could see into the future, and even then there was nothing definitive.

But Acorn Man wasn’t done. He was still prepared to help—an acorn’s curse, perhaps—but not before setting the record straight about who was right and who hadn’t listened.

“What will you do when this young man moves on? This person half as old as you are? Things can get worse still. They likely will. You’ve yet to live on the street.”

The way Acorn Man said those last words made it sound like he knew something very dire indeed.

The man put down his box of Saltines which he’d been eating on the bed, given that there was nowhere else to sit. He’d been chewing as quietly as he could after starving himself for two days, because he didn’t want his roommate and his date to hear him munching away out in the common room, thinking he was some Saltine glutton and Saltines were the only pleasure he had in his lonely life.

The thing about the man was, he didn’t seem that surprised to see Acorn Man. It was as if he regarded him as an acorn and nothing superhero-ish at all. Like he was blind to the billowing cape and unimpressed by the truths that had been present in Acorn Man’s initial warnings, and the man now possessed those same “super” powers himself, but he didn’t make a big deal about it by donning a costume.

These two were always going to struggle to be friends.

“Ass-wipe,” the man said in the direction of the window sill.

None of my versions of Acorn Man were one that ever stooped to take any bait, though. Refusal to take bait—and, as you might imagine, people could be pretty tetchy when Acorn Man reappeared—was the Acorn Man way.

But even during the early issues when Acorn Man was prone to gloating and bursts of self-aggrandizement, I think that had more to do with my insecurity that I couldn’t draw much else than the likes of an Acorn Man and the fault was mine rather than his. Then again, it’s not hard to be loyal to your own character.


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